Jason’s Archives: May the Best Player Win

Greetings, Speculators!

No archives for you today. There really isn’t anything edifying on Reddit, nor are there any SCG or GP results because this weekend was the prerelease. I hope you had a lot of fun playing events this weekend. If you played Magic and didn’t have fun, you did it wrong.

I Did It Wrong

By now you guys know why I write finance and community articles. I’m a good value trader and speculator. I managed to blunder my way from Brainstorm Brewery fan to Brainstorm Brewery member and live off of Magic alone for over a year. But like every person in my position, I was primarily a player first.

2004 was the year I started to take my play seriously and move from casual player to grinder. While I never put the time into testing and practicing necessary to make the next level, I did break the 1900 mark under the old rating system in both Constructed and Limited before deciding my time at GPs was better spent getting paid.

I don’t miss the grind at all, and the worst thing that ever happened to me was probably a ridiculous hot streak where I won a box nearly every prerelease weekend for years.

The (Wrong) Expected Value

The greatest aspect of prerelease weekend is how it brings new and casual players out of the woodwork. Some players are attending their first tournament ever, and for many others (pre)releases are the only events they ever attend. In a casual crowd determined to have fun, the worst thing you can do is approach the event with a spikey attitude. Since I’m accustomed to winning a box at these events, and since my motivations for the game are primarily financial, I went into this weekend with the mindset that losing was bad EV.

Now most places charge $25, which is not bad for six boosters and entry into an event with prize support. The EV argument is admittedly somewhat ridiculous in hindsight. But I spent a large portion of the weekend pretty unhappy because the wheels really fell off. I kept more hands of five than hands of seven. In multiple matches I kept a three-lander and drew eight-plus lands and one spell both games. I failed to capitalize on play mistakes my opponents made because the cards weren’t cooperating.

Worst of all, I was tilting so I had my share of missed triggers and “RTFC” moments (I forgot Balustrade Spy had flying at least three times). Close losses fed my feeling of disappointment that spiraled as I fell down the ladder, losing to newer and newer players. I played three events and never finished above .500, not great for the same guy who lost only one game at the Dark Ascension prerelease.

One thing I did get out of this weekend was a ton of practice. Even though I was probably not much fun to play against by the end of the event, none of my opponents refused to let me look at their deck and sideboard after the match. Huge credit to everyone I played against — they were all very receptive to suggestions and throughout the weekend multiple former opponents came up to me and thanked me for helping with their deck.

The silver lining here is that every time people discuss card choices with other players, regardless of how different in skill and experience they may be, they are likely to play better at future events. I didn’t win packs but if I accomplished some community outreach then maybe I got value after all. (Cue insults about my saccharine sensibilities and future career as a Hallmark writer.)

It’s All About Winning and Losing

I guess the take-home lesson here is that there are two types of players. Those who love to win and those who hate to lose. Unfortunately, I hate to lose and it wasn’t always that way. I used to enjoy winning because I didn’t view it as a foregone conclusion but rather an earned occurrence. The fact that my views have evolved as I’ve improved as a player lead me to believe it’s possible to change my attitude back.

Ultimately it’s about redefining the value we spike-types are seeking. You’re paying $25 to open six boosters, get a ton of practice for real sealed events to come later, and if you like helping new players build their decks you get a crack at that, too. If you lose to mana troubles and topdecks, it isn’t your opponent’s fault so make sure to congratulate them on their win. Chances are they would rather have won a real game.

Variance is a part of the game. If you want to play a game where the best player always wins, it already exists. It’s called chess, and there’s a tournament somewhere every weekend.

How Else Is Magic Like Chess?

Chances are you’ve seen the Banned and Restricted announcements by now. Insiders saw an insightful post by Doug Linn in the forums about how he prepared for potential unbannings, and when nothing was unbanned we weren’t sure how to proceed. Every card I had anticipated becoming unbanned or buoyed by another potential unban was instantly rendered a bad play and I was left without a plan.

I had budgeted some money for this announcement. I didn’t want it to go unspent if there was profit to be made, but I also didn’t want to waste it buying cards unlikely to peak since it’s tough to break even buyings at retail and reselling on eBay. It’s usually a losing proposition although trading those cards for value mitigates your losses a bit.

Now a chess player thinks moves and moves ahead, so I thought it would be instructive to talk about my thought process last night. There is potential for profit but it’s not apparent right away.

One Move Ahead

Bitterblossom and Ancestral Vision were two cards bandied about as potential unbans. Blossom seemed unlikely given that it would improve Jund and encourage a bunch of people to sleeve up Faeries, and that all the cool decks people like me would want to play (Zombardment variants) would likely remain tier-two. Still, I saw what happened to Thoughtseize when Modern season hit, so it seemed hard to lose money by buying Bitterblossom at $15 the second it was unbanned. There would be a buying frenzy right away, and when the dust settled, the second wave of people who got the news this morning could buy them from me on eBay for $45 or whatever ridiculous temporary price they hit.

I knew where I wanted to buy Bitterblossom and Ancestral Vision if they were unbanned. Midnight came, my targets were still banned, and thinking one move ahead proved not to pan out in this instance.

Two Moves Ahead

The banning of Bloodbraid Elf and Seething Song reduce the power of two important archetypes, Jund and Storm. This might create a power vacuum where other decks poised just below them could ascend to fill their roles as Tier 1 decks. As people brew, staples of other decks will sell in the short term. If those picks pan out, there is high profit potential. If not, those cards will still be worth at least what you paid. With Jund nerfed, perhaps Junk could get better? Junk has a lot of the same playables in green and black and you don’t have to splash Lingering Souls which lets you play three colors.

With Storm gone, could Twin be the best unfair deck now?

Three Moves Ahead

If people start brewing with Junk, they might try [card Doran, the Siege Tower]Doran[/card] as a potential marquis card. Doran is admittedly weak now. But unless Jund players simply jam four [card Huntmaster of the Fells]Huntmaster[/card] and continue unperturbed (please let this not be the case, I will die a bit inside if it is), he could improve a lot.

Twin has a real weakness to spot removal like Path To Exile, but it also has trouble dealing with an opponent’s Spellskite. They can’t go off if you have a Spellskite and can activate it, so they have to deal with it first. (If your Junk opponent is at one life with a Spellskite, may I suggest attacking with Pestermite?) If Twin gets more play, sideboards will want more ‘skites.

Spellskite has four toughness which makes it a Myr Superion with Doran on the field as well. Probably not good enough for the maindeck, but you could board in worse things than a 4/4 hate bear for 2 colorless.

Therefore, the weakening of Jund and Storm has the potential to improve the positioning of two decks, both of which could benefit the owners of Spellskites.

I spent a portion of what I’d budgeted for potential price spikes last night on some Spellskites. They’re around $4 retail right now and trading them out for underpriced Standard stuff at Modern events is not a terrible worst case scenario.

Conclusion

If you’re playing a prerelease event with the presumption that the only value is winning out, you’re doing it wrong.

Irrespective of whether Spellskite is a good spec (time will tell) I think using a similar thought process to the one I used is more productive than forlornly closing your browser window at 12:01 because you didn’t get the answer you expected. I’m not saying buy Spellskite. I’m saying think a few steps ahead, because that’s how you win. MtG finance can be a mental game just like chess. Think a few moves ahead and the advantage you’ll gain is incalculable.

Jason Alt

Jason Alt

Jason Alt is a value trader and writer. He is Quiet Speculation's self-appointed web content archivist and co-captain of the interdepartmental dodgeball team. He enjoys craft microbrews and doing things ironically. You may have seen him at magic events; he wears black t-shirts and has a beard and a backpack so he's pretty easy to spot. You can hear him as co-host on the Brainstorm Brewery podcast or catch his articles on Gatheringmagic.com. He is also the Community Manager at BrainstormBrewery.com and writes the odd article there, too. Follow him on Twitter @JasonEAlt unless you don't like having your mind blown.

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