Just as MTGColorPie was fueled by my writings on Sol Ring, so I’m fueled by his writings on Commander and baseball. As my background is baseball writing more than Magic writing, I could write tomes on the similarities, but I’ll stick to just a few pertinent thoughts – not necessarily connected to each other – and hope you like them. Rather than sticking to Commander, I’m going with all-around Magic truisms to compare my favorite card game to my favorite game.
The End of the Game Isn’t the End of the Game
With statistics like WPA (Win Probability Added), every moment of a baseball game can in hindsight be broken down as to how much it contributed to the likelihood of a victory (it could of course have taken away the odds, giving negative WPA to the bad team and positive to the good team). While technically the last out is what won the game, what you’re actually looking for in discussing the game is the moment of highest WPA – what changed the game the most. The highest WPA play of the game might not even be on the winning side, but if you want to look at important plays you start there and not just from the last play.
Similarly, Magic ordinarily isn’t won or lost on the final turn; a Magic game’s highest WPA will be somewhere before the killing blow unless it’s something that kills in one blow (and even then that might not be the key play). Perhaps it’s protecting your creatures from a sweeper or choosing the right targets, but if that’s what put you in the best situation to win, that’s what you should be looking at and what you should be analyzing the most.
On some level, this is obvious, but it doesn’t always change how we view the games we lose, and I think in multiplayer that’s where a lot of the difference is. I was in a 4-way Commander game this week, beating a Grand Arbiter Augustin IV deck with my Karona tribal Spirits. I delivered the killing blow against 4 Sun Titans (he had cast Rite of Replication on a Kemba player’s original Titan) by swinging with a Shinen of Life’s Roar and random dorks. This was one of the only attacks I had done to this point.
But if you trace the game back, I had contributed little to the killing process aside from using a combination of Celestial Kirin, soulshift, and Crib Swap (soulshift only says Spirit card, which oddly enough changeling instants are). The bulk of the damage was done by the Thraximundar deck swinging constantly at GAA-IV. I happened to be in a reasonable position to finish a player off, but that doesn’t mean I should get all the credit here. I was an opportunist, not an assassin.
While in the game it was clear that’s what I was doing, it’s still easy to assign too much credit to the killing blow, if not to others then in your own mind. I suspect this is a problem with those who play aggro decks in multiplayer; they rarely finish anybody off, yet they did the bulk of the damage. They have low win totals but high damage totals, so they get frustrated. The decks don’t need to change necessarily, but perhaps the mindset of success needs to change. In the same way that Commander leagues assign points for various in-game achievements (although the purpose seems to be more for varied gameplay than credit per se), if the aggro player sees that he or she did most of the damage, then that should be a victory in terms of how it feels, because a full victory in multiplayer is pretty unlikely.
(As an aside, complaints that a deck isn’t winning should be kept in perspective. If you’re constantly in 4-player free-for-alls, in a healthy environment your deck should be winning 25% of the time. If winning is your benchmark, play duels or go to tournaments. Tweaking your deck is to put it in a good position to get its fair share of wins, not to win all the time.)
So just because a guy can hit four home runs in a losing cause doesn’t mean the guy didn’t do the most of anyone to help his team win. The literal end of the game – the last bit of damage – isn’t the true end of the game – where things are fairly well wrapped up. If you’re not getting the thrill of victory because the literal end keeps the credit flowing elsewhere, take solace in whatever your deck is doing well. The game-changing moment rarely is the game-ending moment.
As a corollary, the good managers understand that their best reliever might not be the one who always pitches the 9th inning. In many circumstances, the 8th inning is more important, depending on who’s coming up to bat and so forth. Several successful teams have let the saves go to the mediocre closer while the aces pitch the 7th and 8th innings, making sure there’s an actual lead for the closer to protect. This is the heart of baseball leveraging – using your pieces in their optimal roles – but since closers have saves to honor them while set-up guys have semi-useless stats like holds (not that saves are that useful), not only does the glory go to the last guy out, but managers may use their best players suboptimally due to these things, making literal in a new way the equation “misassignment of role = game loss.”
The comparison to baseball isn’t fully apt, as baseball has a generally defined window of time to make all your plays and Magic isn’t so linear. But leveraging your pieces is huge in Magic, and like using your best pitcher knee-jerkily for the 9th inning, using your removal suboptimally will give you several losses, even as it’s hard to point to when you lost.
If you’re trigger-happy on your creature removal, you need to do at least one of a few things:
Become more judicious with it. Think about whether this threat really is as much of a problem as a semi-random upcoming problem (think of, an above-average threat from your opponent but not their best – upper third, maybe) and whether your randomly-drawn removal will be worth it. Is Pyroclasm worth it against “just” a Fauna Shaman? In some decks it’s worth pulling the trigger, while in others it isn’t. This isn’t easy, and I can’t recommend much, but it’s one thing you can do.
Make your removal more efficient or add removal. You can improve the quality of your decisions, as above, or you can mitigate the damage of individual decisions. I have terrible discretion with counterspells in any format; consequently, I rarely play them. My discretion with removal is better, but not great. But you could just make your decks have so much removal that you can blow it without thinking. It doesn’t up your skills, but it means you get to kill everything, and that can be fun.
The Michael Lewis book Moneyball rocked baseball discussion with its in-depth look at A’s general manager Billy Beane and his economics-based approach to building a better team. Beane possessed in innovation what he lacked in funds, and he took a team-making approach that was considered quite cold for his “format”: exploiting market inefficiencies. He and his stat gurus determined that on-base percentage was the most consistent way to build an offense and that it was highly undervalued in the free agent market. So he picked up high on-base percentage guys who had no other discernable skill and, long story short, it worked.
In the popular conversation, the focus was on on-base percentage and the guys with no other discernable skills. But that wasn’t the point; it was the method, the idea that baseball, as a market, had exploitable inefficiencies, and limited resources can be circumnavigated with principled smarts (this idea was in doubt throughout baseball writing at the time of the book).
If this makes baseball sound like a metagame, then you see where I’m going. Every metagame has an exploitable inefficiency. No deck is perfect. As other teams embraced on-base percentage, it became less exploitable, and Beane had to move on to other areas, perhaps to diminishing returns but still competently given the cash on hand. But there are still inefficiencies; by definition there always are.
Consider the current Standard metagame and the following cards, pillars of Caw-Blade, Boros, Valakut, and other strategies:
Green Sun’s Zenith
Each of them has an exploitable inefficiency: they shuffle the library. Forgotten as it is, Standard has a shuffler-hoser in Cosi’s Trickster. Forgotten as they are, Merfolk have a potential 12 lords for a deck: playsets of Coralhelm Commander, Merfolk Sovereign, and Grand Architect (who can allow his own shenanigans). And as odd as it is, Green Sun’s Zenith technically causes its controller to shuffle twice, giving your Trickster a double boost.
Could a Merfolk deck be viable in Standard right now? I don’t know, but there are a surprising amount of pieces, and its one-drop is great against pretty much the entire metagame. And what of those things above are the other decks going to sideboard out? They’re all centerpieces of the deck. For what it’s worth, there’s a way to take advantage of all that shuffling.
Or take Jund from last year’s Standard. It was unbeatable until people figured out that its main weakness was the mana base. Once people caught on to Spreading Seas as a way to exploit this, blue decks started showing up and Jund was just a normal part of the metagame. It wasn’t initially obvious, but it was there the whole time, and Jund had to adjust.
My Sol Ring/Radha article came from this Moneyball perspective – the idea that mana artifacts and to a lesser extent nonbasic lands is a currently exploitable inefficiency in Commander. That doesn’t mean it auto-wins or that it’s the only way to build things, but from a theoretical perspective it is correct to look for inefficiencies and see if they can form a coherent strategy that isn’t out to get just one deck. Whatever is in your playgroup has an inefficiency, and you can exploit it if you work at it. I recommend doing so; otherwise, the same types of decks will dominate, even as the names and sets may change. Shroud creatures are vulnerable to Gatekeeper of Malakir effects and board sweepers; board sweepers are vulnerable to regenerators/indestructibles; those are vulnerable to exiling; etc. The answers are out there, especially in eternal formats like Commander. Don’t shy away from finding them, and you might find that, like the A’s, you can do it cheaper than it would be to buy the so-called staples.
I’m sure there are plenty of parallels (and that you’ll hear about them one day), but these are the ones I most feel like writing about for now. I like baseball and Magic for their rich historical/analytical content, and there’s plenty of stuff the former can teach about the latter. Hopefully the things I’ve talked about is some of that stuff.