Wednesday, April 25, 2012

"You're Only As Good As Your Opponents Make You"

In the late nineties, I was still playing Magic: The Gathering. Almost to the exclusion of everything else, in fact. It was all Magic and World of Darkness for me.

In short, it was an era of my gaming history of which I am not proud.

I worked, briefly, at a card shop which was primarily a sports card shop, but, like every single other card shop in the world at the time, they had started dabbling in Magic. Because it was like a license to print money.

Like most card shops, they bought and sold singles - and engaged in limited trading.  As an employee, I was given rough guidelines to follow, and I did so.  To the letter.

And it almost got me fired.

See, I bought a card that the store owner thought was useless, despite its high cost.

This, by the way, was shortly after Fallen Empires had come out. To give you an idea how good that set was, even now - almost twenty years later - unopened packs will cost you about $0.50. I don't think any of the cards from that set have been reprinted into newer base sets.

The card I bought wasn't from that set. And I didn't really buy the card so much as trade for it with the store's stock - again, following their stated policies. I recorded the trade in the log (as I was supposed to).

When I got in the next morning, my boss was fuming. "Clearly," he said, "you don't know what cards people are playing or what's worth trading for." Because the card that I had traded for was (to his mind) useless. "I need you to start attending this weekly gathering of players, so that you can see which cards have value and which are worthless. Otherwise, I'll have to fire you for this mistake."

He had a specific gathering in mind.

Here's something else you need to know about me at the time:  I was a tournament-level player. I didn't actually participate in tournaments, but several of my friends did - and did very well. I did reasonably well against my friends in play, too. They used me as a trainer in some ways.

I had two decks which were in use - a Black/White/Artifact Meekstone deck that tied up my opponent's creatures while my smaller (mostly flying) creatures attacked relentlessly (with occasional instants like Howl from Beyond; a Red/Black Land Destruction and Direct Damage deck that destroyed my opponents' lands and picked at them directly (it wasn't completely creatureless, as those decks weren't quite viable, yet).  The exact compositions of the decks fluctuated, based on what cards I had at any given time.

"Fine," I told him.  "I'll be there this week.  And, while we're discussing it, let me buy that card you think was a mistake.  I'll use it at the gathering to prove that it's a good card."

That Thursday, I showed up with my Red/Black deck.  This club was set up so that, once registered, you received a slip indicating how many "stars" you were worth.  When you played people, you found out how many stars they were worth, and you reported your wins to the organizer.

Once you had accrued a certain number of stars-worth of wins, the organizer would break out his deck, play against you, and then give you an additional star.

It was a pretty good system.

Like any group, there were good eggs and bad eggs. This group had a handful of baby seal-clubbers, who had gotten all of their stars by beating one-star players. And they were eager to face me. Because I was completely untested and they knew they could beat me, because they'd never seen me before.

My boss was there, with his five-star deck - and he was a seal-clubber. He thought he was great.

I played a few games against other one-stars for a bit.  When I was undefeated after a handful of matches, the seal-clubbers saw it as their duty to prove that my deck wasn't that good.

When one of them barely squeaked out a win against me, he asked me how many stars I was worth. His response has stuck with me for years. "One star?  With that deck?"

At this particular gathering, they played a very specific style of Magic. The decks either all fit the same profile or were set up to defeat that same profile.  It didn't matter what the profile was - the people there only played the people who were there. There were no varying deckbuilding philosophies at work, because they'd all learned how to play from one another.  When faced with a deck built along different lines, it baffled them because they didn't know how to face it.

Their decks - in all honesty - were good decks.  Solid, playable, functional decks. And, had they tweaked three or four cards, they would have beat me more reliably. A while back, I talked about regional variants being common for many classic games. This wasn't actually a variant - it was a style of play difference. 

It was before the 'Net Deck' phenomenon that (for me) sucked all the fun out of the game. Because I really enjoyed seeing multiple styles of play. And I liked some of the home-constructed decks that we used to see in those days.  There were some really odd decks out there that would never see the table even in casual play these days.

As it is, when my boss decided to face me, I trounced him.  He had a Red/Green Big Creatures deck that relied on getting a lot of mana out quickly from relatively few lands. But "relatively few" still requires at least one or two.  He quickly sideboarded and challenged me again. And, again, I annihilated him.

I used the card in question during both games.

And was unsurprised to find myself out a job the next day.

Following that, I did see him in tournaments, and he had tightened and tuned his deck considerably. He even occasionally beat me.

See, when you play in a small group, you can get "really good" at a game - but you won't know how good you actually are until you move beyond your group and encounter a different style of play.

It applies equally well to both board and card games, too. I'm really good (in my group) at Modern Art, but I have to wonder: Is it because I'm good, or is it because my opponents' style of play is weak against my style?

No comments:

Post a Comment