Seedborn Musings – Did You Just Say Sibboleth?

 The Magic community in the last few weeks has been confronted with misanthropy issues from without and within.  Battle lines have been drawn; words have flown furiously across the Interwebs; tempers have waxed and waned.  In polarizing articles, we gamers have been stereotyped and then condemned for our stereotypes.  My take is that the problem is the dual urge to deduce and to simplify things that cannot be deduced or simplified.  But this column’s primarily a deckbuilding column, so the reason I’m writing about it is I firmly believe that the social interactions of your playgroup might be hurting your deckbuilding skills and vice versa.

Magic is prone to shibboleths, mantras, and fake truisms of many kinds, just as life is, and accepting them in either area comes from similar motivations.  Ditch them, and you’ll be the better for it.

A Shibboleth Defined

Shibboleths are, in a nutshell, oral litmus tests.  In the biblical book of Judges, the Gileadites, defending against their Ephraimite enemies, would test anyone trying to crossing the river by getting them to pronounce the word shibboleth.  Ephraimites said it sibboleth, which marked them as the enemy.  In modern usage the idea’s taken a broader connotation, but the word still carries the notion of a metric of conformity.  In the U.S., the Pledge of Allegiance is a shibboleth, because people who don’t say it must be attacking America, and who wants to attack America but commies and nut jobs?  The pledge is a shortcut, a quick read on a person; and that’s the value of a shibboleth.  Gilead didn’t need to take much time to spot the enemy; it took only a word to get to the point.  It’s quite efficient if it works.

The damage is done when shibboleths replace thinking and ambition.  Uninvestigated truths are passed from player to player and group to group without any corrections or research, building the hive mind on stilts.  Where can this come from, and how might it affect your life?  I nominate three channels that converge into problems.

Magic is a game followed in sizable part by a certain demographic.

I’d like to say that as an interest Magic draws equally from societal segments, but of course it doesn’t; it hits up nerds disproportionately.  The skills and interests that draw people to Magic are distinct from those powering social interaction.  Analysis of decks, of board states, or of metagames requires data and parsing more than it requires human communication.  The more time one has spent honing the former, the less likely that time has been spent honing the latter.  They aren’t mutually exclusive, but time is zero-sum.

This is in the abstract.  Realistically, an early negative experience with people or a reason to be introverted will lead someone to realms where they need few or no people.  For me, that’s been statistics/analysis/research, and Magic offers plenty of those.  But…Magic’s also a social game.  It isn’t chess; you could try to ignore the opponent to analyze a line of play 10 turns long, but the opponent’s hand will change that analysis next turn anyway, to say nothing of several opponents. 

So you have people who moved out of social interaction and into analysis now having to interact socially to complete the analysis.  For those who do not understand this (e.g. the often-stereotyped Spike who can’t grasp a multiplayer social contract), shortcutting any part of the process sounds glorious.  You can minimize social skills in duels and tournaments, where the analysis matters most, but in multiplayer you have to balance/master both analysis and sociability, and not everyone wants that.

By bringing heavily analytical people together and telling them to play a game, Magic creates friction between the strength of many (analysis) with their often-accompanying weakness (social interaction/things that yield less to analysis).  As a result, if something can minimize the latter and sound like the former, then so much the better.

Magic is a game with weird sample sizes.

From a statistical standpoint Magic has very few interactions that pair correlation and causality.  There are so many possibilities even in a small, well-defined format.  Standard metagames change from week to week; you can beat a red deck with Timely Reinforcements 70 times in a row…and then they change their deck, cast Hero of Oxid Ridge, and own your face.  This adaptivity is Magic’s appeal and its difficulty.  Every quarter there are at least 100 new cards.  That bloodthirst deck that’s stagnated since 2006?  M12 invigorated it!  This is the nature of a metagame; things that beat nobody a few weeks ago might be better with new cards or with everybody playing something different.

But this also makes it very difficult to apply lessons from week to week.  They exist but at the macro level, not from game to game.  You didn’t draw enough lands?  The answer isn’t always to put in more lands; and so on for most if not all questions you could ask in Magic.  Deckbuilding and game play are art and science, and they never fully escape either.  WotC’s abandonment of the Elo rating system is at its core an acknowledgement of the art side.  To them it’s “variance,” which is fine, but the important part is that Magic always will feature huge chunks that can’t be analyzed.

It's always some of both. And that's a good thing.

I love that about the game, but not everyone is comfortable with its intangible/immeasurable side.  If you know someone who got frustrated because their deck just lost to a deck/person they don’t respect, that’s where the frustration originates.  “I spent so much time/money on this deck; how is it losing to that pile?”  It’s losing to that pile because spending so much time/money on that deck improves odds and no more.  Our conclusions come primarily from game play; as such they’re inductive rather than deductive, no matter how much we want otherwise.

Against that backdrop, anything that sounds conclusive/deductive and has enough game play support to seem right can be adopted quickly.  This doesn’t mean it’s statistically significant or even significant, but it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking it is.

Magic is a strategy game with a long learning curve.

And here’s the biggest issue.  If you’re new to Magic…hoo boy.  I’ve been able to process new sets in their intended bite-size chunks, but that was half its history ago.  I assume that it’s a lot harder to get into it now; maybe the rules simplifications and better core sets have helped, but it’s still a giant task, especially if you face people with weird decks a lot (I don’t know anybody like that, and stop looking at my nose).  Against this backdrop, the natural thing is to listen to Magic veterans as children would listen to parents.  But for reasons already discussed, while this is more efficient initially and necessary to some extent, it isn’t foolproof and it is eventually unhealthy.  Once again, Magic’s nature weighs against deductions…but definite statements sound so much more authoritative that older players like to say them and newer players get comfort from them.

In any complex endeavor, simplification is attractive.  If you’re building a Commander deck and you start the list with cards filled out, it feels good.  And if enough players are saying you have to start with Sol Ring, Sensei’s Divining Top, Duplicant, and Solemn Simulacrum, then you might as well believe them, right?

Wrong.  None of us fully learn or master the game; this is an impossible task.  As such, most “facts” about deckbuilding are rules of thumb at best.  It’s fine to say each deck should consider staples.  It isn’t fine to flip through someone’s deck and assume its weakest cards ought to be replaced with the staples it doesn’t yet have.

But rules feel better.  If you’re unsure in your deckbuilding abilities, it feels better to have someone with more experience tell you what to do.  And if you think of yourself as someone with more experience, it can feel better to tell someone what to do, the way old wives’ tales are passed down.  Those sorts of things, like parenting, certainly can be helpful in the early going, easing the learning curve and getting people closer to winning at decent frequencies, but like parenting there is a point where they ought to be lessened.  Conclusions in Magic are based on experience and induction, not absolutes, and the more a player plays attentively, the less that player needs the specific experiences and inductions of others.  Nobody stands completely on their own or on somebody else.

In general, we Magic players are people who want facts and rules and absolutes; it’s what deduction-seeking brains crave.  What happens if we’re in an enterprise where full deduction doesn’t work?  We might oversimplify.  We might phrase inductions – rules of thumb derived from some experience – as deductions – irrefutable conclusions that separate the smart from the dumb.

Wrapping Up

Life has a long learning curve, and as we’re starting out we need people to guide us.  After a point, however, our reliance on them can be detrimental, as we convert their experiences into shibboleths, laws, and “duh”s.  Many of those are based on inadequate sample size.  Stereotypes and obvious deckbuilding shortcuts come from the same urge to simplify a staggeringly complex thing, and the more they are seen as fact, the more they will defeat meaningful discourse and progress.  Quite obviously stereotypes are the bigger of the two problems, but the processes to arrive at both problems are roughly the same, and both can be used to create an in- and out-crowd by turning them into shibboleths.  And when someone cries sibboleth – “You types are all the same”/“You have to run X if you’re playing Y” – those who guard the “facts” are quick to strike.

There always will be a temptation to make your own observations rules, to promote tendencies to facts, and to simplify necessarily complex things.  Resist this wherever you find it.  It’s a disservice to the subject, it mishandles new or different information (usually by tossing it), and it can destroy both your personal and Magical efforts.  The stakes are higher in life than in Magic but the methods are the same, and sound practices in one can encourage sound practices in the other.  It’s how you take in what others tell you; it’s how you draw conclusions from your experiences; it’s how deductive you think your inductions are.  Work on these areas and you’ll improve as a deckbuilder and as a person.

It’s comforting to be given rules where you see none, to start with always instead of sometimes, and to test the competence of others and include/exclude them based on how they say shibboleth.  It brings structure and order to things.  But neither life nor Magic work like that, even as there might be short-term incentive to disagree, and an imposed structure eventually will collapse.  Dispense with all that.  It’s better for you.


About Brandon Isleib

Author of Playing for a Winner: How Baseball Teams' Success Raises Players' Reputations; sometimes-writer at GatheringMagic and Muse Vessel; card name/flavor text team for Magic 2015; Wizards of the Coast's first Digital Event Coordinator; directly responsible for the verb "create" on Magic cards; legislation editor for Seattle; voracious music consumer; Christian.
This entry was posted in Seedborn Musings. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Seedborn Musings – Did You Just Say Sibboleth?

  1. excellent article, congrats!

  2. Alex says:

    In regards to “If you run X, you need to run Y”, I think a much better way that it should be phrased is “If you run X, you should have a reason why you aren’t running Y”. As opposed to being a hard rule that allows no debate, this encourages players to justify and understand the reasoning behind the advice.

    • Seedborn Muse says:

      This is a useful distinction. There are some trends and some “mostly”s in Magic, and there ought to be some way that introduces these without forcing. It also makes the proponent explain the idea rather than state it as truth.

    • kyzneg says:

      This is how I’ve approached it as well, and I really like the distinction. Sometimes the reason is unrelated to the deck, i.e. “I don’t have a copy available” or “I’m running this in too many of my other decks”, or related to one of the other deck design decisions made (for example, my Rosheen Meanderer deck would get bigger X-spells with Sol Ring/Mana Vault/Coalition Relic etc., but that’s also my anti-artifact deck, so I like being able to hit the board with an artifact sweeper without having to worry about what I have on the board).

      Realistically, I feel that you should have a reason why you aren’t running Sol Ring, Sensei’s Divining Top, Solemn Simulacrum, and the other major staples, but by thinking of it as “Why aren’t you” instead of “You need”, the understanding of the deck is increased, and it becomes more obvious that there are actually a lot of good or valid reasons to not be running those cards.

  3. sarroth says:

    Have you studied Psychology? Because your writing on stereotypes certainly seems that way. That, and the use of terms like “statistical significance” and “sample size.” Psychology for the win.

    Good article, by the way. I definitely agree with the staples argument: Consider them, but don’t put them in without thinking about the decision first.

    • Seedborn Muse says:

      My psychology studies are sort of in amateur chunks. I’ve got a bachelor’s in criminal justice (I took Psychological Profiling as one of the courses) and a juris doctorate, so when law intersects psychology I’ve tried to pay attention. Most of my Internet writing is in baseball, where I hang out with a bunch of statisticians and researchers, even as I was more of a history type. When I was between law cases in the spring, I wrote a book on negligence in communication; the basic material’s complete and is in the review/editing stage.

      Basically, the academic/baseball pursuits gave me enough analytical background to apply to the book, and all of it informs this article.

      My own playgroup is pretty good about the issues in the article, but it’s a grab bag at my LGS. It clicked when I realized the people I would listen to for non-Magic advice are the ones I’d listen to for Magic advice. Figuring out why that was brought it all together for me.

      Many thanks for the comments, all. This was a difficult article to write coherently, so thank you for working through it.

  4. John Persons says:

    Great article, as usual. Some would like to keep psycology out of the game of magic. To this I ask if they ever feel wronged or go after someone because they killed your big dude. I usually get the auto response “Of course!” Well, my friend, that right there is your psyche at work. To play with real live human beings you must have a basic understanding of psychology to know what reactions you might face when performing a certuain play. If you just wing it and play to win no matter what… you run the risk if not understanding why people are mad at you.

    Keep up the good work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s