Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth

 

We all play Magic because we love the game, the strategy, and the camaraderie with other players in the community. But we didn’t start out loving the game. There’s a good chance that many of us got sucked down the rabbit hole by the cards themselves. Before I knew how the stack worked or what order the phases of the turn were in, I liked the game. The draw for me was the cards.

 

Trading cards have a fascinating visual design. They’re dense with in-game information that has to be communicated quickly and clearly to the player and they’re meticulously designed for the easy transmission of this information. However, they’re not only meant to be visual. They have a dual mandate to be effective designs in terms of both mechanics and aesthetics. Their striking visual designs include beautiful artwork by very talented artists. The colors and shapes that make up the front side of the card are themselves meticulously designed. Each individual card is a marketing piece as well as a game piece.

 

Collectible trading card games have taken advantage of this idea in a way that other tabletop games have simply ignored. The first time you pick up a meeple from Carcassonne, you aren’t instantly overtaken by the beauty and artistry that’s part and parcel of the game. There’s a good chance you weren’t even aware that the game piece you were looking at was associated with Carcassonne. Magic cards are clearly associated with Magic: The Gathering. It says the name of the game on the card. This is an important step in the process of conveyance, of selling the game both in business and in the emotions of a new potential player. The entire business model that Wizards uses to create and promote Magic hinges on this one moment where a player first establishes their emotional connection to a card.

 

What happens when that emotional response overgrows the strategic value of a card? Sometimes disaster. Sometimes hilarity. Sometimes a paradigm shift in the metagame. Sometimes nothing. An inappropriate emotional attachment to a card can be a roadblock to improving your Magic game. Identifying and properly evaluating these feelings is an important step toward being a better player and a more rational human being.

 

Pet Cards

Perhaps the most familiar expression of an imbalanced emotional response to a card comes in the form of so-called “pet cards”: a card we have a personal connection to and try to jam into decks where it either doesn’t belong at all or could be replaced with a higher value alternative. This is a simple case of overvaluing the card or placing too much emphasis on the card’s positive aspects and not paying enough attention to the negative ones. In set review publications we’ll often see cards evaluated on either a best or worst case basis. It would be dramatically more helpful to always be able to accurately evaluate a card on its average value, but we can’t know that ahead of time. We need context and experience to make judgments like that and before playing with card we have neither.

 

This method of evaluation leaves us very vulnerable to a set of cognitive biases that impair our ability to rationally evaluate card–in particular the anchoring and adjustment effects. If we initially discuss a card in terms of its best case scenarios, we’ll craft our initial expectations for the card on that foundation. Any card will consistently underperform its best case scenario. Delver of Secrets doesn’t automatically flip on turn two. Delver’s power and utility are simple to evaluate if it either flips or doesn’t, but the relative likelihood of it flipping on any turn, and whether or not that will be powerful enough to win in the current game situation, requires significantly more brain power to fully understand. We can’t simultaneously imagine all possible game states for every format. Instead, we must resign ourselves to sensing or feeling out whether our initial expectations were right or not. That can be a lengthy process for some. For others, it may never happen at all.

 

An anchoring effect gives our first impressions a sort of “stickyness factor,” to borrow a phrase from Malcolm Gladwell. We become beholden to our first impressions. They have gravity. Inertia. Adjustment is the process of updating our impressions little-by-little as we encounter new data and perspectives. But even for the fastest learners with the most accurate instincts, the process can take quite a while and we’ll make mistakes along the way, because our impressions are not yet perfectly in line with reality. That first impression dominates our unconscious thought processes and the adjustments that we make are generally too small to effectively overcome that inertial barrier.

 

As we add new experiences to our mental database, we can make yet more mistakes that will lower the quality of our in-game decision making. We often rely on a set of basic heuristics to evaluate how and when to apply new information. The primacy effect pushes our brain to overvalue old impressions and instinctively distrust anything new and contradictory. In other words, the first idea you hear on a subject is a huge factor in determining what you will ultimately believe on that subject. As an example, many people believe that washing their hands in hot water is the best way to kill germs. Practically speaking though, people know that water needs to be nearing its boiling point before it will effectively sterilize. No one washes their hands in boiling water. Lukewarm water doesn’t kill any more germs, but the human race continues to waste billions of gallons of hot water every year because of an outdated and unsupported belief that was spread to us early in our childhood. Our core belief that warm water works better is so deeply ingrained that we unconsciously act on it for our entire lives and we refuse to change it, sometimes even in the face of strong evidence to the contrary.

 

There are many other cognitive biases that affect how we interpret new information or events. I’ve written about a couple of them (Confirmation Bias and The Gambler’s Fallacy), but there are dozens more. If we can’t rely on our unconscious mind to correctly make decisions for us, we must then actively counter our biases through focusing our conscious mind. We have to pay better attention to our mental accounting of results and fully justify any feelings we have about our cards or decks. If we don’t resolve our feelings about a card, then we might end up dragging it with us forever because we like it just a little too much.

 

Back on The General Zone blog, I shared a personal story about a pet card of mine in my article “Pet Cards For Sale.” At the time, Nevinyrral’s Disk was in fully one hundred percent of my decks. When I was new to the Commander format, it seemed like a perfect fit. I had a smaller card collection back then and it was mostly from very old sets, because I had just returned to the game after a long hiatus. Commander was the place for weird old cards, right?

 

In my first couple of Commander decks, the Disk performed well. It was a cheap, colorless board sweeper that let me equalize in many games. Those early experiences were cementing disk in my mind as a premier board sweeper in Commander. In the playgroup I had at the time, few people ran artifact removal. Few people were savvy enough to expect and predict when a board sweeper might be played. Few people had decks that were fast or powerful enough to punish be having to wait an extra turn to activate the disk. My environment was a distraction and a poor representation of what the Commander format at large looked like. I lacked experience. I lacked perspective. I also lacked a formal education in psychology, but thankfully my university was able to correct at least one of the three.

 

The framework for how I interpret information and recalibrate my expectations has become much more sophisticated through the study and application of Bayes’ Theorem. If you are unfamiliar with the rule, I’ll let Julia Galef explain in this video clip. This elegant little equation has profound implications beyond the world of statistical analysis. Entire volumes have been written about it and there are hundreds left to be made. I won’t go into a full discussion here, but I heartily recommend that you read more about it from an expert text on the subject. Rational thinking is the key to improving our world. Everyone can agree that life is a function of inputs and outputs. If you get crap information in, you get crap decisions out. Bayes’ Rule is the guiding principle to collecting better inputs.

 

Let’s return to pet cards in my own decks. There is a fairly lengthy list of cards that appear in greater than ninety percent of my Commander lists. There are some that are considered genuine staples of the format such as Sol Ring, the archetype, posterchild, and ambassador of the Commander format. It’s obvious to even novice Commander players that removing the Sol Ring from your deck does not consistently improve your chances of winning. Every deck has some number of mana accelerators and there’s no other card that consistently outperforms Sol Ring. It’s the highest value alternative in a category of cards that’s considered universally critical to any strategic archetype, regardless of that archetype’s approach to the game.

 

There’s another card on my short list of staples that’s probably not as widely regarded: Armillary Sphere. Commander players are use to seeing this card frequently. Most would agree that the card is pretty good, but I don’t think the format at large plays it in one hundred percent of their decks. In fact, I can prove that they don’t using data from  EDHREC.com.

 

So what’s really going on in my head? Do I value my own experiences and my own evidence more heavily than the collective wisdom of the entire Commander playerbase? I must, or else I’d play sphere in a more reasonable percentage of decks. But then how do I think through my decision to cut the card? I take it out of my deck and then replace it with the highest value alternative, but in this situation I’m not satisfied by any of my other choices. I have many data points to consider: game results from my own testing, other deck lists, the recommendations of key format pundits. I’m not lacking for information to consider, but I am lacking confidence in my decision nonetheless. I don’t feel comfortable with any of my proposed card choice swaps, but I also don’t feel comfortable overplaying a card that I have a personal bias towards. I’m trapped in this cognitive limbo until I can prove which is right and which is wrong. It’s obvious that nonoptimal card choices will lower the power level of a Commander deck, so the results are important to me. And besides, being a victim of my own cognitive biases gets me real salty.

 

Trigger Cards

A trigger card is the opposite of a pet card. Rather than undeserved positive emotions, trigger cards fill us with undeserved negative emotions. They trigger stress responses in our brain and all of the associated physiological changes that occur in your body as a result can end up having a significant impact on your behavior both in and out of the game.

 

Let me frame it up like this: when you play a pet card, you’re giving yourself a positive emotional response, but that positive emotional response doesn’t correspond to anything in the game. It is only in your head where you can feel or experience that reward. Pet cards won’t help you make better decisions or win more games. The opposite is true. At any rate, the effects seem to be short lived. You have a good time playing with your favorite cards, but your life outside doesn’t experience any dramatic positive improvements.

 

When you come up against a trigger card in a game, though, the situation is quite different. People deal with stress in very different ways and there are inevitably going to be points in your life where you don’t have an effective mechanism to resolve that stress in a healthy way. In fact, recreational games like Magic: The Gathering might be the tool that best helps you dispose of stress. So what are you meant to do when your primary stress reliever fails and becomes a source of new stress in your life?

 

It’s an unfortunate reality that negative emotions are often more infectious than positive emotions. Academic studies have been used to model negative thoughts and behaviors using the pattern of epidemic spread.  The stress created in your Commander playgroup will be carried outside of the game to the rest of the shop. You will transmit it to the people you come in contact with later that day. You might be in a noticeably bad mood when you interact with your roommates or close family. This is a frightening consequence of the fact that our behaviors are just manifestations of our thoughts. Our thoughts, whether conscious or not, dominate our actions (yet another example of a input/output process that can get caught in a feedback loop). I wish I could say the impact of a trigger card would be confined to your mind, but the placebo effect is a real and extremely well-documented phenomenon…and it can work in reverse. This so-called “nocebo” effect can inflict real harm. Again, this brief video will better explain.

 

Having a reliable and productive way to dissipate stress is one of the most critical components to having a healthy and fulfilling life. Exercise and sharing affection with loved ones are the oldest, and perhaps most efficient, ways to resolve stress because the effort invested in these areas will have beneficial effects in other parts of your life. They’re simply constructive uses of your time and energy. From my perspective, the only downside is that they treat only the symptoms of the stress, but not the cause. To stop this problem from recurring every time you re-enter the same situation, you must fully move past the cause of your stress.

 

There’s really only one way to approach “solving” your trigger cards: to immerse yourself in the stress conditions, confronting both your stressor and your responses to it. Mastering your emotions in the same way that physicians treat phobias or high anxiety. This involves changing your mind, changing your habits, and engaging in intense self-reflection. For many, this is the most difficult task that can be undertaken in the human experience. However, an army of self-help gurus somehow agree on the idea that a person’s ability to affect positive change in their life is a function of how willing they are to engage in activities that make them actively uncomfortable.

 

Afterall, if you do the same things, you should expect the same results, and it’s a sure bet that you’ve been avoiding some things in your life because you don’t like how they make you feel. Everyone will admit that they could be a better person than they are today; there’s something about each of us that could be improved. People aren’t perfect. Because of this, it’s my personal expectation of myself that I be better today than I was yesterday. Learning to deal with emotional triggers is a developmental step in my mind, not an indignant choice of moral superiority. It’s part and parcel of being a healthy, adult human being.

 

Dive head first into things that make you angry, afraid, and anxious. Acknowledge that these feelings exist and then let them pass naturally. Don’t dwell. Don’t fixate. Don’t sequester yourself or withdraw from your stressors. And don’t blame others for your feelings. To feel is a privilege. Enjoy it. Focus your mental and emotional energy into combining all your experiences into one positive feedback cycle and you will be absolutely astounded at the rapid personal growth that you undergo.

 

As always, make sure to leave your feedback in the comments below, reach out to CommanderCast on social media, and support the site via our Patreon page. Next week I’ll be offering something completely different: an entire month of articles dedicated to multiplayer.

 

-GG

 

“In General” is the place where I share my ideas on unconventional topics that are often only tangentially related to Magic. This column is a mixed bag where I collect and present ideas that don’t have a home anywhere else. If you want a column about strategy, psychology, design, economics, philosophy, internet culture, and referential humor, you have come to the right place.