Seedborn Musings – How to Win in Magic

Yeah, I’ve got your attention now, don’t I?  I’m talking straight-up about winning.  And before you ask the question to the omniscient and conveniently absent narrator’s perspective, I’m not talking about winning from a fuzzy after-school special point of view/drivel.  I’m talking about winning and how to do more of it.  Interested?

The definition of winning

While I’m not talking about feelings or some sort of playgroup hippie commune, I am talking about some redefinition of winning depending on your current view of it.  I’ve discussed this some, but it deserves its own article and thesis statement:

A good definition of winning in Magic must account for the game narrative, variance, and the unique clash of multiplayer.

At the end of it, of course you want to be the official winner – the last one standing.  Being the official winner implies that you did something right over the course of the game – probably a lot of things right.  But it might not mean those things at all.  If a board stall prevents the last two players from getting damage through, the winner will be whoever has the most cards left in the deck, and that’s probably the player who didn’t search for a land or cycle anything or draw extra cards (of course, avoiding those is in the abstract how not to win v. the rest of the table).  I’ve played plenty of games where the newest player brings the weakest deck and wins because the other players spend their resources fighting each other.  I like that for its ability to fold others into a playgroup, but it also doesn’t correlate with deck performance.

Clearly, you’re not supposed to make your decks bad just so you can get into this circumstance; winning isn’t connected to bad decks per se.  You make the best deck you can, take it into battle, and see what happens.  But multiplayer is its own beast.  Assuming you’re not playing a team variant, the minority of players will win and the majority of players (i.e. all but 1) will lose.  If you consider yourself to have succeeded only when you’re that minority of 1, then you will be frustrated with how your decks perform.  You might wind up dissatisfied with most of your decks because they aren’t the only ones left on the table.

To make this clear, if you play 4-player games all the time and your deck is winning about 25% of the time, guess what?  You’ve got a good deck!  If your group is balanced, then a .250 winning percentage is a good sign.  Why?  Because spread over a playgroup winning percentage is zero-sum.

Take that example further.  Let’s assume you have 4 people in your group including yourself.  In this scenario all 4 people only feel good about their decks and themselves if they’re winning half the time.  They’re not obsessed with winning, they say; they just want their fair share of wins.  Well, combined they want to win 200% of the 100% of games they’re playing.  You can’t move the percentage of games up; it will always be all of the games they play.  If even 2 of those 4 get the percentages they want, the other 2 will be upset.  Each player needs to lower their expectations of how often they’re the last player alive.  They can’t be happy in that scenario without making other people unhappy.

So there are 2 options for those 4 players.  They can:

A) Be content with winning less often; and/or

B) Find other things about games that feel like winning.

Most players end up doing both.  A is easy to figure out; either you’re cool with it or you aren’t.  B’s the one that gets argued over without getting articulated, and B’s the one that will help you the most.  For some players, B is simply the in-game social interaction.  Did I have a good time even though I was eliminated?  Then I won because I spent my hours having fun.

That’s a definition I can live with and I endorse it for everyone who can use it.  But it isn’t that quantifiable and it isn’t much of an article.  (Yes, the need to write yields disproportionate discussion of certain concepts.  If you haven’t figured out why more writers encourage playing blue even as more players might like red, that’s why; there’s very little to say about a burn deck, while there’s loads to say about blue control.)  If you care about deckbuilding and doing what you can to increase your odds of winning while still maintaining your group’s competitive equilibrium, you want to fit other things into B.  How do you do that?

Account for the game narrative

I’m sure there are 573 Mark Rosewater articles discussing this idea at least tangentially, but games of Magic are like creating your own story.  You’ve agreed to make a story with other people even as you’re in that story and can’t control everything in it.  So you want the basics of good stories, like a plot that connects the dots logically even as it surprises, tension created from things going back-and-forth, and so on.  If a combo suddenly ends the game, it might be a fun way to wrap up the story, but it might also feel like a deus ex machina and leave other players as dissatisfied as if every episode of The X-Files blamed things on aliens in the last 3 minutes.

"Plot of land and plot of story/Deuses spoil all the glory." - Poem I Made Up

But even as the ending is important, it isn’t everything.  It needs to deliver well enough, but the bulk of what you watched was the stuff in the beginning and middle.  So it is with Magic games.  If you were the target most of the game, still did most of the work to get all your opponents down to 3 with you at 9, and then one of them Exsanguinated everyone to death including you, were they winning for most of the game?  No; you were.  Don’t let that Exsanguinate steal the game narrative from your deck.  Your deck was about to win before that Exsanguinate, so why should you feel bad?  You shaped the plot; you controlled the narrative.  Don’t change your deck up because of it.  Your deck did as much as it could to win.

So why not consider that a type of victory?  You built a good deck; it did a lot that game.  In an environment where you can’t win a majority of the time or even close to it, your deck doing its intended purpose most of the game is a type of victory.  And the best part is that, in a balanced playgroup, this goal isn’t zero-sum.  4 players can have their decks working against each other as best they can and all come out with a form of victory even if they’re still each end-winning only 25% of the time.  In fact, the best games feel like this: every deck clashing optimally for the majority of the game.

Check to see how your deck is performing even when it isn’t winning.  Did your burn or aggro deck dish out most of the game’s damage?  Did you make a huge swing at The Threat and swing the momentum?  Were you The Threat?  Did you assemble most of your combo/synergy?  These are all types of victories.  Learn to appreciate them and you’ll view your Magic performance in both happier and more realistic terms, since you’ll fix the things you can fix (your deck’s game plan or what types of responses your deck needs to survive) rather than what you can’t (that Exsanguinate that won the game at the end).

Account for variance

Sometimes your deck’s in the right position to win if it would only draw that one land or that spell you still have 4 of.  Some of this you can fix; some of this you might not be fixing the right way.  Read this if you feel uncertain.  If you’ve done what you can, even though your deck doesn’t help you out in a pinch, it isn’t your fault, so don’t grouse about your loss.  (It probably doesn’t help to do a “still had all these,” either, because guess what?  If your group’s in competitive equilibrium, everyone could say that.  Big whoop.)  Variance is vital to Magic being a fun thing to do with more than just yourself.  Topdecks bring optimism where none ordinarily would be.  This is a good thing.  Don’t hate on variance when it frowns on you that one time when you really wanted to win.  (As opposed to those times you didn’t want to win?)

Your remembrance of when you won those other times probably took variance for granted.  Sure, it was a topdeck, but you’re the one who thought to include the card, right?  Don’t kid yourself one way or the other.  You will win some games and lose some others because your cards were in a random order.  As with many things, it’s all right as long as you properly preadjust your expectations by accounting for variance.

Account for the unique clash of multiplayer

It was almost 9 years ago already, one of the first few months I was playing, but I have no trouble recalling this game and neither does my opponent.  It was my best friend Nathan, the guy who taught me to play.  I was playing the first form of my R/G Beast deck, built mostly from an Odyssey/Onslaught collection and quite clunky.  Nathan?  Playing Psychatog.  Counterspell after counterspell after instant-speed card draw…it wasn’t any fun at all.  I had no idea how to beat any of that; it seemed the deck could do no wrong, especially not against Mr. Untuned Noob and his Beast deck.

After a litany of turns, Nathan pulled the normal near-winning turn: Upheaval and recasting Psychatog.  I replayed a Forest and passed the turn.  Nathan moved in for the kill, exiling his graveyard and discarding his hand for a lethal Psychatog before the blockers I obviously didn’t have…

“Vitality Charm?”

With insufficient cards in his library to kill me and a basically vanilla 1/2, Nathan scooped.


Tournament history has shown conclusively that Psychatog is one of the most important and powerful creatures ever seen.  Meanwhile, Vitality Charm has made no such claim in the world of instants or Insects.  But let the record show that, in one random game in a dorm room several years ago, Dr. Teeth choked to death on a bug.

Who had the better deck?  Who had the better game plan?  Nathan-Tog, obviously.  But if you go all-in on Psychatog, you are vulnerable to Vitality Charm, and in what might be the only time those cards faced each other anywhere ever Vitality Charm won.  This doesn’t make Vitality Charm better than Psychatog, but the weakness was there, the cards were there, and I won.

That’s just a duel.  Now add a bunch of players, possibly a different format, and several decks, and end-winning as the sole measure of superiority is even more absurd than saying Vitality Charm is better than Psychatog.  Sometimes multiplayer clashes are defined more by what isn’t there than what is.  When the normally red player brought a blue deck but the board needs sweeping (and they’re not playing Floodgate because they’re not me), you see what you’re missing in the normal give-and-take of multiplayer.  It’s not just how your deck matches up against a theoretical field; you do the best you can with that, but the win in this game is about how your deck matches up against these decks, along with several other considerations that lay the foundation for typical Muse Vessel content.

So end-winning doesn’t actually say much unless you crush everyone around turn 5 with something broken.  What it says is that when these N decks face each other, your deck can perform well against them.  That’s not very satisfying to say, though, is it?  So we tell the game narrative to friends in a way that acknowledges luck just to minimize it, overemphasize our role because we’re pretty sure we would have won even without that topdeck, and so on.  None of that helps us get better or sustain our success, and aside from picking you up if you’re feeling down it can’t do much else.

In order to get more meaningful conclusions, you have to broaden what you care about from the game – increase your sample size.  To do that, you’ll have to care about the battles you won, whether or not you won the war.  In a tournament the war is defined as winning 2 battles.  In multiplayer the war is still built on the battles, but they relate much less linearly.  Proper building, tweaking, and improving will look at what can be helped – what parts of multiplayer games have the simplest cause-and-effect relationships – and work on those, rather than worry only about the final outcome.  There are many battles to be won, but you have to focus on them to make them better, and you have to feel good about winning them to feel good about multiplayer, at least if you plan on playing it often.


In multiplayer the output is a product of so many factors outside your input that you’ll adjust the wrong things by caring only about the end win.  Understand what you’re trying to accomplish, what you can affect, and what you can take credit for, and you’ll start to build the skills that might have eluded you thus far.  There’s a lot of winning to be done if you know where to look.


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.
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2 Responses to Seedborn Musings – How to Win in Magic

  1. Razjah says:

    My group mostly does this. The newer players celebrate as they live longer in games, more experienced when they make it to the last two, the better players when they are the movers and shakers, and everyone loves to be the last man standing. I have seen players cheer because an Exsanguinate would have ended the game right there had someone else

    In team games it is interesting to see who carried someone to victory.

    I think the best thing is when a newer player asks those of us who have been playing more what they should have done, or if choice X would have been better. That is when I can see they are trying to get better and love to help them.

  2. Pingback: Graveborn Musings—BPS, BTS and the Usual BS | Muse Vessel

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