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Exploration Through Constriction

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Bernhard Zander
Bernhard Zander

About Bernhard Zander

Bernhard Zander is a PTQ level Magic player from Sweden who has been playing Magic since 2006. In addition to playing, he also blogs about Magic on his blog "The Exploration". When he is not playing Magic, Bernhard is a master student in computer science and mathematics at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.

  • 12 Lifetime Pro Points
  • Runner-up Swedish Nationals 2010
  • 127th Worlds 2010
  • 71th GP Paris 2011

Exploration Through Constriction

The year is drawing to a close and we all are wrapping things up for the holidays and the New Year to come. For players in the PTQ scene that means that Modern is the next format of great interest. I will write about that format soon enough, but I'm going to hold the Modern content until next year. I have something else I want talk about today.

Exploring Limited formats.

You don't have to point out that this article would have been much more timely to put out there a couple of months ago, when Return to Ravnica was fresh off the shelves and we had the whole PTQ season ahead of us. I realize that. However, there are always new Limited formats on the horizon and thus the topic remains interesting. Additionally, I didn't feel like archiving the idea for later either.

So, exploring Limited formats... what about it?

When approaching a new 40 card format, we, as competitive players, strive to learn and discover its intricacies in order to get an edge over opponents later on, when the actual outcome matters. We do this by figuring out things like how the colors stack up, how they interact with one another, which strategies are potent, which strategies are pipe dreams, and so on. We figure these things out mainly by just playing a lot of drafts and sealed decks. Exactly how much "a lot" is, is very hard to define, and dramatically varies between formats and players. Some formats are deeper than others, and contain more strategies and non-obvious interactions, and thus require more time to figure them out. How much previous experience a player has in playing Limited Magic also plays a vital role. Many interactions, effects and/or cards that we find in new Limited formats often are similar in nature to previously existing versions, although in a new "wrapper". Players who have these experiences, need less playtime in the new setting to figure out exactly how good the interaction, ability and/or card in question really is.

A good example of the later is how to evaluate a card like Merfolk Looter in various formats. In some formats, cards like Merfolk Looter are of premium value and are easily considered "first-pickable". In other formats this type of card is significantly worse and should be picked and fielded appropriately.

How much playtime "a lot" is, in reality all comes down to you. Exactly how much playing time or the number of drafts that implies, is not important. "Enough" is the goal you should have. If you are a reasonable human being and are honest to yourself, "enough" might sound like a daunting amount of time. However, there are techniques that will allow you to cut down the number of drafts and/or sealed decks you need to play, and will let you get the most out of the time you put in. You are probably employing some of these techniques already, like simply reading competent players' opinions about the Limited format at hand, and discussing the format with your playgroup.

The point of this article is not to list all the available learning techniques, but rather to mention and advocate one in particular. The technique I have in mind harks back to constriction.

Constriction?

Yes...constriction. I know, it might sound a little strange that a tool I'm suggesting you to utilize to explore vast formats is to limit yourself, but hear me out.

When I was a kid and attended elementary school, I remember that me and my classmates would occasionally receive assignments during our language classes which consisted of short stories in which key verbs and/or nouns were stripped out from the text. The task was to fill the gaps in the text with appropriate words, so the story would be complete and make sense. I'm sure that a vast majority of you who are reading this can relate to similar assignments from your schooling. These assignments were in general quite easy, right? Because of the context of the story and the limitation set by the sentences, there were not that many different words that could fit in those gaps. The process of elimination, or constriction if you will, simplified the assignments.

On the other hand, the tasks of answering essay questions were about as difficult as assignments could get in those years. Although you had theoretically close to complete freedom about what to write in that answer box, and often you were encouraged to, the same promise of freedom was at the same time a shackle to your creativity. You could write anything...and that was the problem! What do you compose when the selection of words and topics is seemingly close to infinite?

I'm not a psych major. I can't explain why the human mind works like that. To be honest, "why" is of little interest for the sake of this article. The fact that it does is what matters, and that you can relate to what I just described. I would, quite frankly, be surprised to hear about someone who can't.

Constricting Tendrils
Versions:
Conflux (Foil)

I brought this up to be used as an analogy to Magic and the matter of exploring new Limited formats. Imagine yourself in the position of sitting down for your first draft of a freshly released set. To make this a little more concrete, let’s rewind time and say it's your first Return to Ravnica draft. The draft kicks off, and soon enough a whopping 14 exciting options stare back at you (15 if you insist on counting the basic land). Aside from maybe a sealed deck of RTR and any previous experience of Limited you might have, you are in the dark regarding which cards are good and which archetypes you should be aiming for. With your previous experience, you will be able to sort out a couple of cards that you would consider "good" in a vacuum and separate them from the rest of the pack. For the sake of concreteness, let’s say an Auger Spree, a Centaur Healer and a Voidwielder. The next step, however, is usually really though; Which card do you pick when you have to choose between these good cards?

This is where my example from my schooling meets the situations we again and again face as Magic players. At the draft table, we ultimately have to do a best guess and go with what our previous experience tells us to pick, as we simply don't know what the correct pick is. Ideally, we wish to have traveled down each path in the decision tree at least once in practice, in order to learn what to do in a similar situation when the stakes are higher. In order to get to that point, we playtest.

Exactly how you playtest is critical to how thoroughly and how fast you will explore the format at hand. Trying to take in all the information at once is not optimal, as my analogy suggested. There are just too many options and too much freedom to wade through all the cards and strategies. The learning process will be slow and might in fact not progress at all, depending on how you are as a person.

Another dangerous place to be in when exploring formats is to cling on to some initial success and let that bias your forthcoming decisions. It's dangerous because it limits your scope and objectivity towards the format, and will slow down your learning process significantly. Even worse, it might danger your ability to learn the format thoroughly at all, despite any amount of time you put into playtesting. At times, I find myself being a sucker for this kind of behavior, although I have been able to fight it fairly well recently.

For example, when Rise of the Eldrazi was the hot Limited format, I was hooked early on by the UW and UB "Level Up" archetype. Those decks utilized Venerated Teacher and blue pseudo removalspells to play an impressive tempo-game in an otherwise fairly slow and ponderous format. Although I was enjoying a bit of success assembling these decks early on, the obsession I had with the archetypes hurt me in the long run. The love I had for blue, and to a lesser degree white and black, allowed me to justify some really sketchy (bad) picks in hindsight. Although my love for these archetypes wasn't completely misguided, there were definitely more reasonable things you could be doing in that format, and this fascination kept me from realizing that. It took a lot of persuasion from people whose opinion I value, a lot of reading, and many a drafts, before I could appreciate many of the other things you could do in that format.

I think I have explained the issues thoroughly enough, so let’s get back to the single word I earlier used to describe the learning technique I'm advocating:

Constriction.

Constriction breeds creativity. It allows us to see, feel, and comprehend things that we might otherwise never get to know and understand. It sounds a bit contradicting on the surface, but as the school assignment analogy I made earlier suggests, that is the case. Simply put, what I recommend you to do to enhance your playtesting experience is to limit yourself. Let me give you a concrete example on how I suggest this can be done.

Scribble down a couple of constrictions regarding drafting. They should force you to stay away from a number of cards that you might see in a draft and/or force you to pick some in particular. They can be fairly conservative and straightforward as "Force Black!", indicating that you must draft a black dominant deck at all cost. They can be more specific, like "If there is an Ethereal Armor in the pack, you must pick it!" (In the case of Return to Ravnica, of course). They can even be downright witty in the style of the recent Magic Community Cup, like "Izzet a Deck Yet?", which forces you to draft cards that say "instant" and/or "sorcery" on them if able. If you make them too witty, the educational value will, not surprisingly, drop, but the experience will nevertheless be educational. As a bonus, you will probably be well entertained in the process.

After you have scribbled down a couple, make sure that before your next draft queue fires, in some fashion randomize forth a constriction (roll a die, cover your eyes with one hand and let a finger from your other hand select one in the dark, write a script that does it for you... depends on how fancy you want to be) and then run with it for the draft. For the record, a similar thing can obviously be done for sealed deck.

After each draft and sealed, evaluate your playing experience. Chances are that you didn't go x-0 in the event you entered, as you will at times be forced to make some downright awkward decisions with your picks or in deckbuilding, and thus will be left with a less than optimal deck. That is okay. Your goal shouldn't be winning the event at hand, but to maximize your chances of winning the events that you do care about. What you should be evaluating are things like were there some cards that performed better than you anticipated, did your deck have a gameplan that felt good, where there cards that were underperforming, and so on.

By enforcing these sorts of constrictions on yourself and constantly evaluating your experience with them, I believe that they will help you making objective assessments of the format's intricacies. By objectively examining the format in smaller parts, it will help you get a better understanding of the big picture later on. Although you are in the short run not optimizing your chances of winning those 8-4s you are grinding, you are increasing the rate at which you learn the format, and thus will maximize your chances of winning in the long run.

To answer a complaint I imagine some will have against this method, yes, utilizing constrictions isn't a very cost friendly approach. You will every now and then end up with some truly awful decks that have little to no hope of winning any packs. Therefore, some will consider this learning technique "luxurious" or go as far as saying it's a waste of money. To that I will say that playing Limited in the first place is a waste of money. Playing Limited online, or with paper cards, is bad EV (expected value), period. Given ordinary prices on packs, you will lose money on an average draft or sealed. The reasons why we are playing Limited is for learning and, of course, entertaining purposes only, or at least that is why you should be playing Limited for (acquiring QPs is also a valid reason if you are playing online and are into that). With that in perspective, I think that semi-intentionally throwing away a couple of drafts ever now and then is worth the little extra investment, if it means that I'm learning quicker and more thoroughly.

I'm nearing the end of this article, but before I bid adieu for today, I feel obliged to give a shout-out to whom I got the idea of learning through constriction and inspired me to write this piece. Interestingly, it was not from a source that is directly involved with Magic. You might think that the "Wacky Draft"-portion of the Magic Community Cup earlier this year was the source of inspiration, but no. Since the "Wacky Draft"-portion was designed to be purely humorous, I sort of chuckled and waved it off when I read about it. That using constrictions with drafting could be used as a learning tool was not something that struck me, until I recently indulged a lot of content from a certain Mr. Sean Plott a.k.a. Day[9].

For those who know little to nothing about StarCraft (which for the record is a much praised and popular real-time strategy (RTS) game) and its community, Day[9] runs since 2009 a daily live show called the "Day[9] Daily". The main focus of the show is on showcasing and discussing strategy to help the viewers become better at StarCraft. However, on Mondays he runs a segment he calls "Funday Monday", in which he showcases replays of games in which the viewers are playing under some sort of preset voluntary constrictions. These limitations are often wacky and lead to very entertaining games, as the players are forced to make unorthodox plays in order to fulfill the constrictions before they can go on and try to win the game at hand.

Although the main purpose of the "Funday Monday" is to be entertaining and give the viewers a hearty chuckle, there is an important underlying purpose with the segment. By forcing his viewers to play games while fulfilling some additional requirements, he forces them to be creative and thus discover new strategies and perhaps reevaluation of certain units in the game. In other words, he encourages his viewers to get creative by using constrictions... and with that we have gone full circle and come back to this article, Magic and what I have encouraged you to try today. Hats off to you Day[9] and to everybody else, I can't nothing but recommend checking out his content. You don't need to know a lot about StarCraft to enjoy his show, at the very least for the "Funday Monday"-segment.

And hey, even though I presented the idea of using constrictions as a learning tool, it's not to say that, much like "Funday Monday", the concept could easily be used for entertainment purposes. At least I would be very enticed to watch content based around that idea.

Any streamers out there?

With that out of my system, it's time to wrap things up for today and this year. Take care and I wish you a marvelous Christmas and a dandy New Year.

Until next time, happy grinding.

Bernhard

@bzander88 on Twitter
_Balthazar_ on MTGO
balthazar88 everywhere else

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