"If you ain't first, you're last. You know, you know what I'm talking about? "
-Ricky Bobby, Talladega Nights
The recent discussion in the community has a lot of us learning to reevaluate the foundations of "what works" in the trading card game universe, with "what works" being what proves to be successful in a format. I will be focused on speaking purely through the events of the World of Warcraft TCG, however, much of what is at fault here can be seen globally even amongst the other various card games. One must ask if there a coincidence that the same players achieve roughly the same results. A few examples being the success of Brian Kibler (one of the founders of our game) in the MTG universe or that of the success of Brad Watson and Stuart Wright in WoW TCG. The quickest analysis is to simply claim that these players have more skill than that of the other players. However true that may or may not be, much may be gained from considering the total evidence theory. The total evidence theory suggests that when making claims of inductive inference, we are best suited by examining all likely candidates of influence. These individuals gain success over the rest of the population through an accumulation of many elements; playing the right opponent, playing the right deck with the right cards, and playing cards in the right sequence.
"You can't have two number ones."
-Ricky Bobby, Talladega Nights
Defining these elements is a necessity needed to gain levels of success to mirror that of the winner's circle. Playing the right opponent is not just playing someone with less knowledge than you, but moreso playing a deck that doesn't trump what your deck archetype is setting out to do. Like how the new Mage that recently emerged has a rough time handling solo decks, if you're playing the Mage and want to succeed, you must manage to avoid those archetypes that counter yours. The best way to do this is to remain informed on what it is that is likely to be played by the population of the tournament. Also known as the metagame, defining the metagame is often the most important factor when considering what decks are viable options to play in the tournament. When we choose to play one deck instead of any other we are committing a very modest inductive inference. The inference being: in the past players have played deck x. The future will resemble the past. Therefore in the future players will play deck x. This can also be expanded to evaluate cards that you expect to see.
When making these inferences we are not allowed to conclude with certainty that players will play deck x or even x cards in the future. That is, as David Hume pointed out, that we have no reasoning for supposing the future will resemble the past. To do so deductively would require that we know for certainty facts of the future. The nature of the future in itself contains factors unknown and thus gives us a false premise. And to do so inductively would be using our own knowledge of induction to prove induction begging the question resulting in an argument forced into circularity.
"Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn't one today."
The future does not need to resemble the past.
Forgive me for the brief analysis on the problem of induction but it directly relates to many problems addressed by the general WOW TCG public and even the big one we all wonder. How can non-Brad Watson and Stuart Wrights achieve similar levels of success? To do so would require one to reflect upon the Total Evidence Theory and make more informed decisions. As most of our collected knowledge can only be used to suppose inductive inferences we should all know that these things will never grant certainty. One could equate this to luck and chance or what many have concerned themselves with as of late, the variance.
Within trading card games, variance exists. As a player you are aware that it has an effect on the result of the game. It should be your responsibility to know the cards that grant the most variance. Having such knowledge will permit better deck building decisions. Finding these cards is rather difficult, as you will want to know many things about the nature of the cards themselves. Which cards permit more advantage on the play, which cards permit more advantage on the draw, and which cards are best when behind?
The list of these cards is quite long; I believe the latest R&D Blog provided a few examples. The three most played cards of these effects are [Cairne, Earthmother's Chosen] (Best on the play), [Sava'gin the Reckless](Best on the draw), and [Gnash] (best when behind). I am sure you can easily find a few more cards that belong in each category. The most important thing to gain from this is the knowledge of these categories. Often times in testing a deck you will find that winning under certain circumstances such as losing a die roll in an unfavorable matchup. However, in each deck one should have access to a line of plays or cards that can turn the favor. Knowing your options as a deck builder and choosing wisely can assist in controlling the variance.
I remember back in Nationals 2009 when Corey Burkhart and I chose to play Black Ice. We included a card in our side deck that would heal each of our allies over time, and the card was [Nalkas]. We included that ally to beat the mirror match so a resolved [Myriam Starcaller] could not be easily killed by a [Water Elemental]. I remember pairing against Ben Isgur in the last rounds of the day, and it was a mirror match no less. We played the counter-war over time in the first game and I managed to resolve a [Belt of Blasting] to take the game. After siding in [Nalkas] to prevent Ben's allies from making efficient trades in the second game, I didn't have to focus so hard on the counter-wars and allow his threats to resolve, giving me the ability to play my threats and then back them up with the healer. I remember to this day what Ben had said after that match: "You deserve to win I guess, you tested the matchup". Now that wasn't necessarily true, we just opted to find a card that worked well in that particular situation. Moral of the story: Know your options!!!
Playing the right cards in the right sequence is perhaps the biggest and most difficult concept for players to grasp. Card Advantage is generally the most universally applied concept within trading card games. Card advantage can often be seen as gained when your card enters play answering one or more opposing cards. What you want as a player is to maximize card advantage, which is oftentimes easiest by increasing the effectiveness of your cards. When doing this, it is wise to consider the ultimate goal that your deck is playing within the current matchup. There are three different deck archetypes that are important: the aggro deck, the control deck, and the tempo deck. As the aggro deck your role as the player should be to maximize damage over time. "Brad Watson never misses a single point of damage," Corey Burkhart said at DMF LA. When evaluating card advantage as an aggro player, the defining question is in what manner can I maximize damage? Effectively answering that question during the start of each turn and anticipating it in a manner often one to two turns ahead will be the easiest way to do this. Success with an aggro deck is often based on how well you can count damage, so be sure to bring your calculators. At one point during DMF LA I received a slow play warning for taking out a piece of paper to add up all the possible ways I could maximize the damage off a [Sinestra]: IE counting damage is not my strong suit.
The second type of deck is the control deck, as it plays the role of winning in the long run by playing cards that answer opposing cards efficiently, often in maximizing card advantage. So as the control player you will want you card X to answer opposing card Y, and at the very least the best control decks play cards X that not only answer card Y but also provide an additional effect, such as gaining a new card in play to reuse (like the previous example of [Gnash]). Keeping track of damage is important in as control player but it is also with equal importance to keep track of card advantage. As a general rule it will always be easier to count card advantage (the total number of cards in play, resources in play, and cards in hand versus the opposing number of cards in play, resources in play and cards in hand). You generally want to maintain the higher number of cards over your opponent to consider yourself ahead and capable of winning the game. I do not recommend playing decks of these types in a best of one format or an unknown format as you will often find yourself playing cards that do not do enough on their own rights or just simply do not answer the right questions.
Another issue facing the control decks is the current imbalance among cards that are good on the play and cards that are good on the draw. The most difficult deck for determining how to evaluate card advantage is the tempo deck, the chameleon of sort that can blend as both the control deck and the aggro deck according to the match up it is playing against. As a tempo deck, playing against a control deck, you ought to evaluate card advantage in the same manner you would as an aggro deck. Maximizing damage over time is the quickest way to win. However while playing against an aggro deck you want to act as the control deck, focusing more of your time evaluating actual card advantage. Although combo decks exist they will mostly concern themselves with making the same sequence of plays to ensure they combo off.
There is obviously much more to playing cards in the right sequence rather than just maximizing advantage. The best example in the history of our game is the interaction between [Kidney Shot] and [Invocation] as playing the Rogue ability in response to the activation of the Mage ability would completely counter the card. I remember the outrage that had occurred once that realization was made, and how quickly Rogue control came into the forefront. Finding and establishing these relationships among cards is caused from knowledge of the rules. Much like what had occurred recently when [Winter Veil Disguise Kit] was given an errata. It is important to understand that all of these categories of evidence are open to interpretation and grow upon new evidence found, so do not get lost on the notion that these concepts are fixed. They will fluctuate as deck archetypes change and as new cards come into light.
"The thing is, it's very dangerous to have a fixed idea. A person with a fixed idea will always find some way of convincing himself in the end that he is right."
In the end, one has to wonder what holds more importance: deck choice or player skill. Ultimately I believe this game favors deck choice more than that of anything else. This is because I am committed to the belief that, given when two players of the same skill level play one another, the person that is playing the better deck is considered the favorite. Now although skill is important, it is still more important for players to use the total evidence theory to make the most informed decision regarding card choice and deck construction. Then, from that, learn the matchups and the sequence of plays needed to win the metagame matchups. With all that in mind, stay tuned for my future articles to entail why I built the decks I play, what total evidence I had used, and the matchups and plays.
Until next time, focus on theory when you practice!