Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Testing against Jon Finkel

Jon Finkel is a Magic:  The Gathering legend.  Acknowledged as one of the top players of all time even currently he was a beast when at his best.  I recall I story about Finkel from back when I was playing a lot of Magic in university.  It goes vaguely like this:

Finkel was testing some tournament decks against another player to find out how strong a particular deck was.  They played a number of games and Finkel won 80-20.  The other player was pretty dismayed because he felt like the matchup should have been much more in his favour than that and was concerned that his deck simply wasn't viable because it was so bad in this particular matchup.  They decided to swap decks and play some more and Finkel again won 80-20.  It turns out that the decks they were playing were roughly equal overall but that Finkel was just so good that he could turn a 50-50 into 80-20 in his favour ... even against another pro.

I was pretty decent at Magic but I sure was never in Finkel's league, despite the fact that I ended up playing Forbiddian (Finkel's signature deck) in the same formats he did pretty regularly.  I find though that this lesson is one that I see when I try to test FMB.  I have played more games of FMB than everyone else on the planet added together.  This means it is no great violation of modesty to say that I am by far the best player alive by a substantial margin; if I had logged as many games as I have and was not that much better than everyone else I would certainly feel like a bit of a failure.  The trouble with this is when I change a mechanic or add a new one I need to test it and to test properly I would need an opponent that can go 50-50 against me so I can determine if the mechanic is a problem overall.  Normally I win all my games roughly 35-45 so I have some guideline - if I use a particular artifact and then win 30-45 there is some reason to think that artifact is really spectacular.  Problem is that there is a fair bit of randomness in those results and separating out the effect of one particular artifact or spell from the noise of strategy, other cards, random luck and other factors isn't really feasible.  Certainly winning a handful of games with a larger or smaller margin than usual would fail even the most forgiving statistical analysis so unless I have extreme amounts of time for games I really can't rely on points spread for my data.

You might say "Play against yourself!"  You might say that, and perhaps there are people who can adequately play two sides of a game that has hidden information and play properly but I certainly cannot.  I always find that one of the teams becomes 'my team' in my mind and I find myself trying to get that team to win.  It is also quite silly to play knowing your opponent has 


when I really shouldn't.  Compartmentalizing my mind such that I can accurately determine what I would have done if the other part of me held an unknown card instead of that particular one just isn't something I am capable of.  I don't know that anyone (who would otherwise be considered sane) could do it, but I sure can't.  A part of FMB too is faking the opponent out and making moves that indicate a particular card when you don't have it to convince them to guard against an attack that will never come.  Bluffing, of course, goes out the window and I can't figure out how I could adequately model that with full knowledge.

I suppose that playing against nearly any other player isn't going to make that any different though.  The number of people who actually know FMB isn't large, and the number that are familiar enough to actually try to bluff me is less than a handful, if any.  Most likely I just need to look at the card and think a lot about it and then take it in a few games to see if anything shakes out in actual play that I did not think of in abstraction.

Spell:  Trickery

Cast:  During your Spell phase

Effect:  Choose two units on either team that are not inside a Fortress or on a Mine.  Swap the locations of those units.

Spell:  Tunnel

Cast:  During your Spell phase

Effect:  Choose one friendly unit.  Move that unit onto any unoccupied Mine you control.

These are the two spells I have most recently been testing.  Both are extremely complicated to calculate the value of and definitely require in game trials to establish their value.  I played them both in a couple of test games and in both cases they got cast fairly quickly, had some real value, and felt comparable in value to other spells.  I think Trickery has the greatest potential of any spell to create huge swings but it also has the potential to be absolutely wretched if the opponent responds with spells to counter the intended plan.  Tunnel is fairly innocuous and after a bit of testing seems like a fine spell but nothing exciting.

Artifact:  Queen’s Diadem

Use:  During your opponent’s Spell phase

Effect:  Choose a unit.  That unit cannot be attacked this turn

This is an artifact being tested that also was hard to be sure of.  Would it end up being really overpowered?  So far it seems to be quite powerful occasionally, pretty near useless occasionally, and usually useful.  All my tests so far on these new cards have been done either playing against myself, which I acknowledge as not very controlled testing, or against 1 other new player who is a good gamer but clearly not 50-50 material.  I guess I need a gazillion geeks all over the internet trying to break my game and find the best strategies so that they can write articles for each other on how it is done.  Maybe gigantic online tournaments where all card choices and results are recorded so I can peruse a database to find which cards and strategies were emerging dominant.  Also, I would like a pony.

A few more cards I am testing right now:

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