Solving Problems and Intuition

Hello, today we’ll be talking about something slightly different than Miracles. I won’t be telling you which deck to play or how to improve your Limited game. We’ll dive head first into the theory of our beloved game. Have you ever wondered how some people seem to be able to play on a high level for nine straight rounds without punting too much due to being tired? Have you ever thought about how people are able to outplay opponents in the finals of a Grand Prix, after playing for hours and hours and still not misplaying?

Well, I do not claim to have the incontestable answer, but a theory that might prove to be correct.

Know Your Comfort Zone and Strengths

Tournament success hinges upon a number of things, but one common factor is familiarity and true understanding of a format. Every player has a favorite format, despite playing many or even all of them. Even though many wouldn’t consider themselves as “Modern players” or “Legacy players” per se, most players do have a format that they are very confident playing in.

You can see this the most from people who started playing Magic competitively with Eternal formats like Vintage, Legacy or Modern, even though I still can’t really get around calling Modern “Eternal” (it also has a non-rotating card pool, so many people refer to it as an Eternal format). Players from these formats are often very passionate about their own format, and more often than not also rather proficient in what they are doing. Casting cantrips and reacting without any untapped lands available during the opponent’s upkeep is as natural to them as cracking Booster packs for others.

While Vintage and Legacy players have “grown up” in a rather different environment than Modern players, they are still sharing the very underlying concept of format familiarity. It doesn’t matter whether you are used to turn 1 or turn 2 kills, rather than coping with the eventual Splinter Twin combo as soon as you put down your shields. All that counts is that you are familiar with one specific environment of Magic.

You could very well be a Limited player too, without any changes to what I said above. Even though you won’t be familiar with a format as a whole, you will most definitely have a firm grasp of the concept of Limited if you are well practiced and that’s what you know. Cracking packs and constructing your deck in the expected manner is where you shine.

So how does all this connect to what I was referring to in the first paragraph? Having a home port of some sort opens doors to some very special kind of playing. But before delving into this very special aspect it’s appropriate to look into the normal one.

Problem Solving

So how do we normally play Magic, competitively and successfully? Basically, a game of Magic is a series of problems that need to be solved, one way or another. Fundamentally speaking, problem solving can be divided into three sections:
1) Determine the current state
2) Applying the resolution-method
3) Achieving the target state

While these three steps of problem solving in the sense of a psychological point of view cannot be applied 1:1 to Magic, it’s still evident that our games have a lot in common with this concept.

Step one is probably the most important one in Magic. Determining the current state includes basic evaluations of board states, that can be pretty easy, sometimes – but also frighteningly complex. Just imagine tuning in to the Grand Prix coverage and seeing a game of Limited, including a stalled out board state. Determining the board state looks unmanageable for someone just tuning in, but both players have managed to do so, hopefully. Admittedly though, they had more time to work themselves into this very board state, but it is still a hard piece of work to get into something like this. Collecting all the data and comprehending it all to one concept is hard work. Not making any mistakes and misevaluating some creatures or tricks can be devastating.

It’s not just one problem that needs to be solved. It’s multiple small ones. An abhorrent amount of data to comprehend. Surveying a board state does not include coming up with a conclusion. It basically just means that you have to “figure out what’s going on.”

But it’s not all about board states. Especially in older formats like Legacy or even Modern it’s equally important to focus on the state of the game, including but not exclusively the board state. Taking into consideration which archetype the opponent is piloting is as important as playing around certain cards based on their hand size is. Doing this is incredibly tough, especially if you’re not familiar with the format.

Step two in the above mentioned classification doesn’t have a clear transformational counterpart as well. It has more than just one. Applying the resolution method can range from assessing the correct role in attacking with Stoneforge Mystic to not playing Ponder or Serum Visions.

This very step is closely associated to the first one, as one can hardly make correct conclusions based on wrong premises. Making a mistake in your determination of the current state will inevitably lead to a wrong, or at least suboptimal resolution-method most of the time, which will then induce a failure of achieving the target state. Even though step two seems to be more complicated than the first one, it’s important to know that this very step is bottomed-up on the first one, which should therefore enhance the status of determining the current-state.

But even more than in the first step it’s crucial to not make any mistake here. As a mistake in understanding one part of the puzzle isn’t punished as hard as screwing up the solution as a whole.
The last step is rather self-explanatory. Achieving said state after applying what was determined earlier isn’t that much of a problem in a game of Magic. Declaring attackers after having figured out that you have to attack with a certain number of creatures isn’t a challenge any more.

So what is all of this about? It’s a suggestion to how problem solving is actually working. It was the most general baseline I could find in all the different aspects of problem solving. As we all know playing Magic is tiring. Analyzing board states, assessing roles and executing a defined plan costs energy. This then leads to inattentiveness and misplays as a consequence. How can you minimize this effect, and why could my proposed recommendation work?

Trust Your Intuition

IntuitionThe solution I have found to this problems is very closely related to the previous intercept of this very article, where I talked about comfort zone above. Intuition is a term that isn’t widely spread in Magic, and yet I think that it’s one of the most overlooked and important ways to place well continually. Many of you are using it already, and you just don’t know it!

So what is Intuition? Aside from being a pretty powerful Instant for 2U, it’s also a term of the real world. Carl Gustav Jung described intuition as one of the 4 psychological basic functions. His understanding of intuition was closely bonded with instinct and emotional processes. This is not what we were looking for, though C.G. Jung also mentions one important piece of information that is more than useful for us. He stated that intuition is closely associated with the collective unconscious and the subconsciousness. I won’t go into too much detail here of what this is and actually means – but let’s jump to the part is connected with Magic, right?

Due to the unconscious mind’s ability to incorporate more information at once than the conscious, it appears that intuition helps reach better solutions in complex situations, while the consciousness works very precisely, but is bound to get along with a very limited amount of information.

This simply means that our unconscious mind is able to process way more data in a given time frame without wasting too much energy than our consciousness would be able to do. It can be imagined as a steam powered factory that can easily produce masses of goods without wasting too much energy, proportional to the amount of outcome. The conscious mind on the other hand would be a manufactory, slow, but precise and very exhausting.

So how do we use our intuition in Magic, and can you simply switch from “solving problems via thinking” to “intuition” in any given situation and tournament? Well you obviously can’t do that. Let’s take a look at how intuition becomes involved in our games. First off, it’s important to mention that you cannot simply decide to be playing with your intuition in control. In order to be able to benefit from this aspect you have to be familiar with the format you are playing in, as well as all the interactions and scenarios that typically emerge in said environment. This can either be achieved by being “native” to the format you are playing in, see above, or extensive testing.

So once you have made yourself extremely familiar with the surroundings you are playing in, it’s your intuition that should do most of the work that would equal step one in the classic “problem solving.” You might be already doing that without recognizing it. Certain board states and their solution might be obvious to you, they might be apparent, logical – they might be intuitive to you.

Following this guidelines it should be rather obvious that trusting your intuition in the environment you’re comfortable in is a good idea, as it will necessarily save you energy throughout the tournament.

Mistrust Your Intuition

Mistrust your intuition.

What? Isn’t this in contrary to everything I’ve said above? Doesn’t this conflict with everything I’ve wanted to convey? Well, not in a sense that everything said above would be abrogated by me.

I explained earlier why intuition is great for processing large amounts of information at once. And it should be used for said purposes. However, there are certain aspects of our beloved game that should be resolved with our consciousness. While surveying complex situations is part of what our intuition should be helping process, it’s nonetheless important to resort back to our classic way of dealing with and solving problems as soon as the even now explained process is completed. Applying your resolution method (step 2 of classic problem solving) should still be in the realm of your consciousness – as there isn’t that much information to deal with. Moreover it’s more important to favor precise decision over rather mostly correct judgments in this stage. Let me give you an example.

I was playing Legacy at the recent Grand Prix in Paris. I sat down for the first round of Day 2. My opponent was on Jund, while I brought my beloved blue-white-red Miracle-menace to the table. I had quickly lost game one. However I was able to even it out in the second one. So we were now in game three and the following scenario happened:

My opponent had one tapped land and two Deathrite Shamans, one of which has just been put onto the battlefield, in play. He then tapped his remaining lands to cast Chains of Mephistopheles, leaving him with two cards in his hand. My hand consisted of Spell Pierce, Disenchant, and Engineered Explosives, alongside other stuff that isn’t relevant for this scenario. I also had a Sensei’s Divnining Top in play with three irrelevant cards on top. So, if you’re not familiar with Legacy – Chains of Mephistopheles is an insane spell against Miracles and has to be dealt with, somehow. So what did I do? I was totally in an intuitive mode. And my unconsciousness has conveyed me the following, based on my long experience with this format. “Jund brings in Red Elemental Blasts. They cannot shuffle them away. So they’ll stick there as long as they find a target. That’s why you have to use most of your blue spells if you find a window, as long as you’re not having enough of them to go on overload-mode.” So I tapped a land and cast my Spell Pierce, deciding not to Disenchant it end of turn and not to use my Engineered Explosives. I proceeded to win the game about 20 turns later.

A lot of my friends were watching this game and one of them immediately asks me if it wouldn’t have been better to use Disenchant instead of Spell Pierce. All I said was “no.” It basically isn’t my way to just say “no” and move on, but at the time given I didn’t know any better. Because my unconsciousness, my intuition has made this play for me. And now we are coming to the breaking point: was this decision correct? No, it was not. My intuition has correctly remembered that you should “waste” your blue spells as fast as possible if you’re just having a few of them due to the omnipresent Red Elemental Blast / Pyroblast. But it still hadn’t worked as precise as my consciousness would have done it. I had overlooked Deathrite Shaman’s ability to generate mana in this case.

The play by itself wouldn’t have been terribly wrong. Trading Pierce for a Red Elemental Blast is a play that is certainly valid. But the problem was that I did come to a conclusion that was based on a wrong premise – which is a fundamental problem, logically. You must learn to know when to overrule your subconscious, or ‘mistrust your intuition,’ as we have said above.

Parting Thoughts

Your intuition is more powerful than you might have thought. The ability to process big amounts of data in a short time without wasting too much of your mental energy is a huge upside. Aside from knowing when to use your intuition and let your subconsciousness guide you through your plays, it’s equally important to know when you should focus on your conscious mind and on your own thoughts. Being able to distinguish between those two ways of approaching the game will surely enhance the way you play and look at the game, by saving a lot of mental energy for long tournaments. But be sure to come prepared in order to enable your intuitive thinking to work properly and know when to “switch” back when playing a tournament in a format you are very familiar with!

This article was different from what I’ve written about previously. I didn’t really dare to go too much into detail but rather scratched the surface here and there. Did you like this style of articles? What didn’t you like? Let me know in the comments or on the forums where you find this article!

I’ve been working myself through some books of “Game Theory” – which are pretty tough to rifle through but also extremely interesting. Would you like to see me write about game theory and Magic? But be warned – I don’t think that I can cover this topic with just some surface scratching – it’d definitely go deep! Please let me know in the comment section below!

Greetings,
Philipp

Philipp Schönegger

Philipp Schönegger is a Legacy Enthusiast from Austria who made Top 8 at some of the largest tournament's in Magic's history, including Grand Prix Paris and Grand Prix New Jersey. You can follow him on Twitter @Miracle_Dude