Quiet Speculation: Playing like an Entrepreneur

Too many of my readers forget that the actual games of Magic we play are just another example of financial and business practices in very specific case studies. I’m loosely defining “business” as “a model or system that solves a problem most efficiently while constantly refining itself.” The definition is my own. You can understand that definition in Magic if you understand it in the real world. Coca-Cola is in the business of selling you a bottle of soda (pop, for you Midwesterners). Thus, their problems to solve center around reducing the costs of producing and bottling soda, as well as solving the problem of Pepsi and other soft drink competitors. It turns out that after a certain point, you can only make the packaging and production so cheap. You have to look at your second metric, your “user-base” for growth. I argue that a similar cycle of engineering takes place constantly within Magic: The Gathering.

Though I am usually referring to the secondary market when I write, for this essay I’m talking about the purely strategic element of the game. That is to say that a tournament win is the specific goal, rather than the profitable results that come from such a win. Many people don’t consider the process by which they play a game of Magic, or build a deck, or prepare for a tournament. Think of it like you’re building a business.

Market-Product Fit

This is my favorite piece of “startup jargon” in the whole world, since it reminds me of two times in my life I’ve been very fortunate and/or very observant. Quiet Speculation came about because I wanted to gather information about trading more effectively. Why? Because I, and half the Magic players I knew, were flat friggin’ broke. If necessity is the mother of invention, then money is the Cruella DeVille step-mother that hides you in the closet under the stairs. Looking at my store, which has been proven to be something customers use on a daily basis, the same is true. Don’t try to brew a good deck. Try to brew a deck that solves a current problem. This has been called metagaming in the past, but I find that term to be presumptuous. I hear a lot of uninformed people talking about “the metagame” like it’s celebrity gossip. Is Brad Pitt dating Ashton Kutcher’s ex-fiance’s equestrian trainer? Who the heck cares? Just like people who use terms like “everyone”, “the metagame” or “the pros” usually haven’t a clue what they’re talking about, it doesn’t really matter who you think Brad Pitt is dating. It’s not verifiable nor is it actionable.

The problem is the signal-to-noise ratio. There are too many people trying to sell you too many things. There is some really high-quality signal out there; I like to think that the work we do at QS is low-noise, and some of my favorite writers online cover important topics on a weekly basis (I’ll refrain from making a list to avoid offending anyone). The problem is that the noise is almost as persuasive as the truth, and they’re hard to differentiate since the most successful “noise” is successful because its source is persuasive.

What does this have to do with the Market-Product fit? Here’s an example: I had a great idea for a combo deck that used multiple 0,1 and 2 cost permanents. All of them were super-efficient and the combo was powerful. In some “markets,” that deck would have rocked. Right now, for example, Pyromancer Ascension is really coming into its own as a viable archetype (told you so over a year ago). My combo deck in seasons gone by was great, but it had one problem; Engineered Explosives was everywhere, and the criteria needed to render Explosives obsolete was just not feasible. I believe my thesis was “If people stop playing creatures and artifacts this deck will be good because no one will be playing EE”. Don’t try to make a deck for a metagame that doesn’t exist. If your deck folds to countermagic, shelve it if the field is dominated by UW Control.

Building Toward Weakness

One of the most important business maxims I was ever taught was, for certain, the concept of playing to strength and nullifying weakness. For example, my short-term memory is atrocious-like borderline disability bad. I’m worse than the way they portray drug users in films and on TV; I will literally forget things that were said to me 10 seconds ago, but it’s because I am probably already thinking about some tangential idea. For better or worse (usually worse), this is how it is and even if I work very hard, this won’t change by much. I have a feeling that a career in memorizing PI is not in the cards for me. Look at the people who got famous for creating exceptional things. You never hear “Mozart was awesome at Rugby, but decided to pursue a career in Music instead.” No! Mozart was 4 years old and shredding the ivories, showing a natural affinity for music. I’m pretty sure that he understood musical scales before he had the words to verbalize them.

While building your decks, consider what the cards in the set “want” to do. They’re like your team when you’re building a business. You only have 60 shares of equity to give out. Figure out what one thing you want to do with your deck and find the right 9 cards to make it happen. I use the number 9 because that gives you 36 traditional “spells” to work with. You can fudge this number by using Marna artifacts, utility lands, silver bullet/toolbox cards, etc, but I’d argue that the extent to which a deck can exceed 36 useful, active cards will be the second-best way to predict its success. The first way will be how closely it can align the problem it is solving against the other decks in the metagame. Everyone wants to come up with a “good deck” but the truth is, no one can start with “good deck” as a goal. A “good deck” is one that’s constructed out of the most efficient cards for the job with precise and researched knowledge of what job needs to be done, for whom, and why.

Once you know the metagame, you know what job needs to be done. If UW Control is king, be sure that your strategy is built to take advantage of UW’s weaknesses right out of base camp. There are no extra points for difficulty here. Once you’ve defined your scope of work (Beat Incumbent Deck x, say) you need to evaluate your toolset through this lens. Asking “how well does this beat the incumbent deck” is a great way to get focus. You’ll see big-picture concepts start to form.

For example, when I was playing Jund mirrors all season, I looked for cards that preserved Jund’s resilient and efficient strength while considering that my opponent would likely be playing a typical Jund list. Cards like Borderland Ranger, which performed the two most important tasks in the deck, were sleeper hits that made their “employers” look like prophets. In reality, the 2-for-1 of Borderland Ranger was much more than a “normal” 2-for-1. Imagine you’re playing Monopoly and you own Boardwalk. Park Place will be worth more to you, since it is precisely the asset you need. The Jund mirror was about never missing a land drop and putting bodies on the board. Goblin Ruinblaster was good, but I found Borderland’s ability to not trade with Saproling tokens to be crucial. Knowing exactly what I needed to find was instrumental in coming to the inclusion of [card]Borderland Ranger.

After Product-Market Fit, you have to be sure that your deck’s goal is focused and being achieved by every card in it. I have a fun variant on a Primeval Titan deck built. Every card in the deck is designed to turn into one of 2 things: a creature or a land drop. As an additional stipulation, each creature needs to benefit from a land drop, so I run Lotus Cobra, Steppe Lynx, Plated Geopede, and Stoneforge Mystic. The Mystic package gets the single Adventuring Gear (thus making it similar to another Steppe Lynx, with the costs staggered and an option to buy another Lynx by re-equipping a few turns down the road). The Mystic also gets a singular Basilisk Collar to multiply the effects of our landfall triggers by ending the chance of racing profitably.

I started with 36 cards, and made a few cuts along the way. One card got cut (Lightning Bolt) because it wasn’t solving any meaningful problems. It got replaced with the Mystic package, which led to a similar outcome while leveraging the underlying principles of the deck (dudes + landfall). It turns out that a 4/5 with deathtouch and lifelink gets blocked about as often as you’d bolt a blocker, and connects about as often as you’d send the bolt to the dome. The option to equip the Gear or Collar once the Mystic died made the package infinitely more valuable.

By looking at what a deck specifically wants to do, you can be sure to choose the right cards for the job. I did not design this deck with a metagame in mind, so it’s mostly a theoretical concept. It plays very well, however, and I suspect with tuning it could be a metagame-viable deck.

Testing, Iterating, and Honesty

I have one friend who loves to argue theory. That’s a problem because he’s usually right, but would prefer to argue theory for the sake of it than to test hypotheses. I am a scientist of sorts, loving the idea of experiments that have little or no cost to them. For every good idea I implement in my life, I usually cast aside a dozen more. This is not because my ideas have a high rate of failure. It’s because I actively encourage ideas to fail, break down, and to have basic assumptions challenged. The friend who argues theory is great for getting some new angles on old problems, but I find the desire to talk about a problem is inversely proportional to the amount of work being done. In the time it takes to argue if Card X or Card Y is the right choice, we can play a couple games with it in each configuration (modifying the smallest variables at a time).

Part of building good decks is iteration. These days I just build decks around a single good concept, and let them become whatever they want to become. I relish the feeling I get when I start developing a deck and I realize “existing Deck X is just this, but better.” It means that a lot of work has been done for me already, namely, a lot of failure. Rather than scrap the idea, I take the ideas that got me excited about the deck in the first place and apply them to the existing archetype. In this fashion, one can usually come to a new angle on an existing deck (Borderland Rangers and Vampire Nighthawks in Jund for example). You only get these big leaps forward by repeating the development cycle many times in rapid fashion. I tried many other cards as well, but these two were the ones that impressed me most. No theory, just honest practice and testing of theories.

You have to be honest with yourself too. You’re only BSing yourself when you pretend to know the metagame. I’d rather be consciously clueless than ignorant. I hear a lot of people spouting off “common” wisdom simply because they want to sound like they’re up on their tech. Unfortunately, these people are showing up Monday for a race run on Sunday. By the time something’s popular opinion, innovators are already building the deck that beats the incumbent. I am sometimes horrifically out of the latest feedback loop from the Pro/PTQ circuit, but by having a good channel of information and people around me who can be honest when I’m wrong, I can get tapped in when I need to be. This is why I am letting most of the other writers on QS handle metagame-sensitive issues. They are hungry to be in the metagame analysis sector right now, and I’m more interested in business development issues. That’s just another form of highlighting strengths while mitigating weaknesses.

Finally, be sure to collect data. If you play MTG Online, much of this is automated. If not, just develop a good system for taking notes that lets you effectively “inbox” good ideas during games. I often get EDH ideas during Drafts, Cube ideas during EDH and Standard ideas during Cube. I always leave a space on my note pad for random ideas that I stow away and save for when I want a quick, fun project (like figuring out if there’s a pimped out copy of Soltari Guerillas for my Cube out there anywhere). I will write more about how to structure note-taking in a future piece, but it’s a crucial part of the game that almost no one uses to their full benefit. I even went so far as to design a whiteboard playmat. I use it regularly.


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