Progress Theory: A New Way of Looking at Magic
Michael Devine (mdevine @ cs.stanford.edu)
Recently, there have been a number of controversial articles on the topic of Magic Theory. These articles have been on topics such as the merits of different ways of counting card advantage, better ways of describing tempo, and other new ways of describing the game. These theories have compelling reasons for using them, and yet, because Magic is a complicated game, they have varying abilities to describe the game as a whole.
In the last eight months, I have been developing the basis for a new school of Magic Theory, with the help of my teammates from TFH.team. I believe that this new way of looking at the game of Magic will serve to simplify the theory of the game, as well as helping to explain behaviors of the game that other theories have encountered difficulty explaining.
The Initial Definition
Let us consider a game of Magic between two players. The primary goal of each player is to win the game. There are a variety of ways that exist to win a game of Magic, including the popular win-condition where a player reduces his opponents life total to a number less than or equal to zero. The cornerstone of this school of Magic theory lies in the following definition:
- n. A quantity representing the advancement a single player has made during the course of a game of Magic toward the end goal of winning. A player's progress is defined to be zero at the beginning of a game of Magic, and one (or 100%) once that player has won.
In simpler terms, progress is the equivalent of the progress bar on your computer. As a player gets closer to winning, the closer that player's progress bar gets to 100%. While all the reasons for this particular definition are not yet clear, this definition has the desirable property of showing how individual plays impact a game of Magic.
Describing Magic Games in Terms of Progress
So what does progress really mean? Let's look at how progress changes for each player. Let's consider a classical aggressive (or aggro) deck like Vintage Ankh Sligh against a control deck like Vintage Mono-Blue Control as an example.
Here we see progress graphs for each of two games between the opponents. The graphs were generated by assigning progress values to various hypothetical game states.
In game one, the aggro player takes an early lead by laying down a Mountain and a Jackal Pup first turn. This play substantially increases the aggro player's progress, because he now has a land that is enough for him to play nearly all the cards in his deck, and he has a creature in play, which is a critical part of the Sligh strategy. The control player responds with an Island. This is generates progress for the control player, since the control player must first have a blue mana source in play before he can do anything else. The aggro player continues to make significant progress over his next few turns, attacking with the Jackal Pup, and perhaps playing some burn spells like Lightning Bolt targeting the control player. The control player is not making much progress himself. He is simply playing lands each turn, perhaps countering a burn spell here or there. These counterspells, it should be noted, do not advance the control player's progress. They simply serve to limit the aggro player's progress. Eventually, the control player gets to a point where he plays a Morphling, but alas, by this time, his opponent has too much of a lead in progress, and the control player cannot recover.
In game two, things are different. Similarly to the first game, the aggro player plays an early creature, gaining a progress advantage. On turn two, they play another. But then disaster strikes. The control player plays a Powder Keg after a few attacks from the aggro player and uses it to wipe out his creatures a turn later. After all of this, the aggro player has achieved some progress, since the control player is at a lower life total than at the beginning of the game, but the aggro player has also lost the creatures that he had immediately previous to the activation of the Powder Keg. As a result, his progress dips slightly. Shortly after the Powder Keg removes the Sligh player's creatures, the control player reaches the point where he can play a Morphling and protect it. At this point, the control player makes immense progress, since his win condition is in play, and threatening to win the game for the control player. The control player wins several turns later after attacking with the Morphling while all the aggro player can do is play the Mountains filling up his hand.
I think these two examples show us a lot about the nature of progress. The first thing they show us is that cards relate to progress in several ways. There are cards like Mountains, Islands, Jackal Pups, and Morphlings in the examples that serve to increase their controller's progress. There are also cards whose purpose is to reverse or prevent progress. It is now time for more definitions.
- n. A game object which enables it's controller to play threats or answers. Some cards in this category increase a player's progress (like lands), but do so in a way that cannot win the game. This group includes things like lands a player controls, cards in his/her hand, and a flashback card in his/her graveyard.
- n. A game object that increases it's controller's progress. While members in this group depend a lot on how a deck intends to win, this group can include Fangren Hunter, a Wurm token, Lava Axe, and Millstone.
- n. A game object that decreases or prevents an opponent's progress. This group includes Pacifism, Wall of Wood, Powder Keg, and Stone Rain.
It is important to note that many cards fit into more than one category. Lightning Bolt is a threat when used to damage an opposing player, but an answer when used to kill an opposing creature. Morphling is similarly used as both a threat and an answer simultaneously since it can attack and untap to block an opponent's creature. Llanowar Elves can be a resource, threat, or answer depending on how it is used.
Now that we have an understanding of progress and how it works, we can see how it relates to other Magic theories.
Progress and How it Relates to Tempo
One of the most important revelations that comes from the definition of progress is that Magic has rules that are explicitly for the purpose of limiting a player's progress. Some of these rules have been covered in the past by Eric "Danger" Taylor in his Dojo article: Tempo and Card Advantage"; others have been covered by Oscar Tan in his "Back to Basics" series; still others are ones I have added to the list.
- A player may play no more than one land on his/her turn.
- A player may only untap each of their permanents once during his/her turn.
- A player may draw only one card during his/her turn.
- A player may only attack once during his/her turn.
- A player may only attack with untapped creatures that have been under his/her control since his/her last untap phase.
While EDT and Oscar Tan described these rules as affecting tempo, I think they are more appropriately said to affect progress. Cards or plays that circumvent one or more of these rules enable a player to make progress at a faster rate. However, it would seem that Progress and Tempo are related concepts. Ian Lippert recently attempted to create a concrete description of tempo in his article "Elements of Tempo." We can define tempo in terms of progress, and show that this new description of tempo is in fact just a new way of describing the concept of tempo as it has come to be known and described by EDT and Ian Lippert.
- n. The difference in progress between two players in a game of Magic
Ian describes three different ways in which gain tempo. The first is based on casting cost. In Ian's first casting cost scenario, the first player plays an Exalted Angel for six mana, and then his opponent gains tempo by playing Terror on the Angel on the next turn. We can see that the progress model agrees with Ian, since the first player plays a threat, the second player answers it, and at the end of the two turns, neither player has changed in terms of progress or tempo.
Ian's second casting cost scenario is the same, only the second player also plays a Ravenous Baloth on his turn. In this case, at the end of the first player's turn, he has gained in progress, thus gaining in tempo by our definition above. When the second player destroys the Exalted Angel with Terror, he has restored the first player's progress to what it was before the Exalted Angel was played (thus gaining tempo for himself by reducing the first player's progress). Then the second player gains even more progress and tempo by playing a Ravenous Baloth of his own. In the end, for this set of turns, the second player has gained tempo.
Ian next describes growth of available mana as a source of tempo. This also fits with our new definition of tempo. Growing the amount of mana available at a faster rate allows a player to make progress at a faster rate, thus gaining tempo.
Finally, Ian discusses tempo and card advantage, but focuses more (understandably) on the tempo aspect of card advantage cards. A player who plays a Wrath of God to destroy his opponent's creatures gains tempo because that player has (more than likely) spent several turns playing those creatures. Note that although Ian describes this three-for-one play advantage under the card advantage section, it is not truly card advantage, since an Evacuation would produce a similar tempo gain.
Progress and "Who's the Beatdown?"
Progress has uses beyond discussing tempo. Mike Flores stated in his article "Who's the Beatdown" that an incorrect determination of whether to play aggressively or in a controlling manner against a given opponent is one of the most common and disastrous errors a player can make. To help us correctly determine whether we are the aggressor or the controller in a given matchup, Mike gave us three rules. These rules can be easily rewritten in terms of the definitions we have created above:
- Who has more threats? Usually he is the beatdown deck.
- Who has more answers? Usually he is the control deck.
- Who has more resources? Usually he is the control deck.
Due to the definitions of threats, answers, and resources, these rules don't map perfectly onto Flores' rules. They are, however, more general, due to the fact that threats can be cards that win games without dealing damage, and permission and removal spells should both fall into the same category.
In this article, we have seen that progress can be a useful tool in terms of describing the roles of cards within decks, as well as the behavior of decks. It is also a sufficient tool for describing previously known, but nebulous terms like tempo, both for new and experienced players. I hope that these applications have shown the usefulness of Progress Theory when thinking about Magic. In the future, I plan to write more articles about how concepts like Zvi Mowshowitz’s “fundamental turn” and card advantage relate to progress. Until then, I look forward to discussion of this article around the Magic community.
Thanks to all my friends from TFH.team, Max, Jeff, Christiaan, and Andrew who have helped me develop this theory.