One of the most important steps in getting better at Magic is learning to play with purpose, with a plan. This advice is freely and often given and takes many forms: think turns ahead, have a plan, know your role in the matchup, etc. What is not as often shared, in my experience, is a method to determine what your plan should be at a specific point in time. What I am going to talk about today is my personal framework for figuring out what's important in a given game state and thus what my plan should be going forward.
The central idea to my method is viewing individual games of Magic as stories; thinking about the three second sound bite I could tell my friends between rounds to quickly give them an accurate picture of the game. The details that are important to include in a brief synopsis are the same ones that matter during the game itself. As I play, I'm constantly asking myself what the story of the game is, and using that insight into the game's narrative to guide my play decisions.
Before continuing into the details of what I do, I want to stress that there's nothing magical about my framework. It is just the lens I happen to use to think about games, one of a large number of ways to think that work well. I use stories because I grew up fascinated with books, with writing, with movies and they are an idea that I understand well. The important part is not the exact framework you use to think about the game from a large picture perspective; it is doing so at all.
The Story of a Game
Every game of Magic tells its own unique story. Figuring out what that story is in game gives you insight into how to set plans that will result in your victory. Maybe you are beset by small red creatures quickly threatening your life points and need to weather the storm just long enough to stabilize with your more powerful late game spells. Maybe you kept a shaky six and need to buy yourself as many turns as possible to draw out of it. The story of both of these games is threatening to be a quick loss, and your goal is clear: survive.
But these are simple scenarios and most of us intuitively understand when our primary goal in a game is to survive. Far more valuable are the times when understanding the story of a game helps us to understand which small battles in a game are worth fighting and which are not. The essence of the story of any game is the critical axis on which the players are fighting. This axis is the game within a game on which the entire outcome depends. Sometimes it is a card advantage fight, sometimes it is board control struggle or a tricky tempo battle. Identifying the axis that matters is critical to developing a good plan for the rest of the game, and understanding the story of the game is a great way to find that critical axis.
I have found that my matches against very good players are the ones that tell the clearest stories. I played a triple Khans of Tarkir draft match against Patrick Chapin in which games two and three revolved entirely around one card -- the Crater's Claws he beat me with in game one. Once I identified that the story of those games was the threat of death by Crater's Claws, my game plan took form: play my controlling UB deck like a tempo deck and win as fast as possible while always representing a way to disrupt Crater's Claws. Finding the story of the match gave me the plan that was my best shot at winning, but it was not enough that time.
Against more average competition, games often lack that kind of clear shape and story. I often hear complaints that Standard is skill-less coupled with the notion that the skill in piloting midrange decks lies in being able to check your hand every turn for a card that has CMC equal to how many lands you have in play and cast said card. This could not be further from the truth, but play like this is what causes matches to lack coherent storylines. That being said, one player playing with intent (with stories!) is enough to create a plot in a game beyond mana issues and is a huge advantage for that player. The first step to playing with stories is to know what the different stories are.
In testing, my main goal is to Catalog all the different games that a matchup can play out in. This sounds like a lot of work, but in reality there aren't all that many different game types possible within most matchups. Most often I use a nomenclature system where I name the game types after the pivotal card involved in them. For instance, current Abzan control mirrors tend into two types: Fleecemane Lion games and Elspeth, Sun's Champion games. Calling the aggressive-tempo games of the mirror Fleecemane Lion games is a little awkward right now as most Abzan control decks have dropped Fleecemane Lions from their list, but the little Lion is still a great symbol of that game type. On the other end of the spectrum, Elspeth, Sun's Champion games are grinds where the dust eventually settles into the shape of an Elspeth.
So, after finding the different game types within a matchup, I turn my attention to analyzing what's important in these different stories and what determines who wins them. Knowing the important lines of play in every kind of story is one of the most important edges you can have and will serve you well in every game that falls cleanly into one of the story types you've identified.
But not all games fall cleanly into a single story. Try to test the edge cases -- if one player is going to play as if it is a Lion game, and the other plays like it is an Elspeth story, what factors determine who wins a game? This is invaluable knowledge both in figuring out what the story of a game should be and what you need it to be based on your draw. The edge cases also tend to be the place where you can best leverage hidden information. Magic at its core is a game of hidden information -- if decklists were given to opponents and hands were played face-up, computers would be the world's best magic players. Use the fact that your opponent doesn't know your hand to hide your edge cards and win 'by surprise' within the story your opponent thought they were telling.
The important cards, both those within story archetypes and the edge cards that can switch games from story to story, are a large part of what I want to figure out in testing. I use that knowledge both in-game and in deck construction. I always want to play more copies of the cards that I have found to monumentally affect the story of a game, because those are the cards I know how to win with.
Winning Unwinnable Games
The most common use of the word stories in Magic lingo is the phrase 'bad beat stories'. As obnoxious as these stories are to listen to, even they can serve to help us win more. Think for a second about mirror matches. In most mirrors of decks that see reasonable amounts of play a common knowledge about what the most important thing in the mirror is develops among the deck's pilots. This wisdom is sometimes more right than others, but almost always there's some degree of truth to it. This knowledge gets so widespread that we start to tell bad beat stories about the times it failed to hold true. Analyzing these stories and piecing together the common thread can help us understand how to win games the common wisdom says we can't.
In the monoblack mirror, the common wisdom was that Underworld Connections was the key card. The games were grindy, and any player able to establish an Underworld Connections lead found themselves very favored as the game progressed. When I picked up monoblack and began to grind, I latched on to this piece of knowledge to guide my play of mirrors. I won games, I lost games, and I pieced together the various stories that could be told in the monoblack mirror. I started to see and understand a story pattern that didn't fit the common wisdom: games where the Connections player died to enough early aggression to overwhelm their removal. After locking down the elements needed to beat Connections, I found that I had a really important weapon in my arsenal. The idea that Connections was the most important thing was so ingrained in the collective Magic conscious that knowing when my hand allowed me to beat an unopposed Connections was huge. I found myself steering games where I knew I could beat Connections into that story and winning a lot of games that would otherwise have been unwinnable.
This idea of steering games into a particular story that we know our draw will be great in is the difference between story-based play and narrative-driven play. "But Jadine," you say, "narratives are just a specific kind of story; your terminology is getting too specific and weird for me." Hear me out. Narratives are stories told by an agent. In a game of Magic, we are not just powerless bystanders to the unfolding story; we are active agents that can mold the story to our liking.
The first level, story-based play is thinking big picture and looking for the story of the game and then using what you know about that story to help guide your decisions as the game progresses. The second-level, narrative-driven play is making plays that turn the story of the game into the one best suited for the draw you have. This a very important tool in your arsenal. There are ways games can play out that a given hand just cannot compete in. If the story of the game is looking to be a grindy card advantage fight and you have absolutely nothing that will help you in such a battle, you need to change the narrative. Make the game about something else, something you can fight over.
And that's the whole spiel. By viewing Magic games as stories I have a comprehensive lens with which to develop my understanding of how to play. This idea of games as stories helps me in-game by aiding my isolation of what the important elements of the fame are, and out of game by identifying the important cards that have a significant effect on the game. By finding the line between stories and knowing how and when to switch between stories I am able to create a significant edge for myself in matchups I know well.
If you don't like stories and find this way of thinking foreign, understand that what I call stories are really just a kind of pattern. Humans are outstanding at pattern recognition and my technique is just a lens through which to view abstract game elements as a pattern-type with which I am intimately familiar. I truly believe that making abstract things tangible is something that really aids not only my personal understanding but also my ability to manipulate them to an intended outcome. If that sounds like the kind of thing that helps you, I highly recommend trying to frame big-picture Magic thinking in a tangible way, whether through the use of stories or something that you are more familiar with. The things I have discussed today can be adapted to essentially anything with patterns.
Thanks for reading