By Edoardo Annunziata

It is not uncommon for communities of all kinds to develop their own specific vocabulary. While it is certainly baffling for an outsider to hear about how I put the Firebrand activation on the stack during declare blockers to prevent combat damage, it is not that different from hearing soccer fans babbling about formations, free kicks, and zone defenses.

But being the remarkable bunch they are, Magic players invented not only words, but a literary genre of their own: the tournament report, a genre with a proud tradition and a rigid canon: decklists, match results, “props and slops.”

For the Mythic Invitational, an untraditional tournament necessitates untraditional report. I have a lot of thoughts to share about the context of the tournament itself. But don’t worry, we’ll get to most of the traditional aspects of traditional report, too.

We Esports Now

From the day it was announced, it was immediately clear that the Mythic Invitational would be a tournament like no other. Not only would it be the first major tournament to be played on the new MTG Arena platform, but eight invites would be sent to the top ranked players on its open, free-to-play online ladder. Never before had Magic promised such a digital dream in the most spectacular fashion imaginable.

And boy did they deliver. Without any expectation of success, I gave the Constructed ladder on MTG Arena a try, playing in my bedroom on my laptop. When the dust settled, the server reported that I was the #6 Mythic player. Through a mix of good plays and sheer luck, tenacity and coffee, meticulous analysis and dumb guesses, I had managed to win my golden ticket to Boston.

While I have to concede that the structure of the invite system, which only involved ladder placement, was not optimal; the idea of offering invites for high performing players on the online ladder is one of the best I have ever seen. I am glad it is being revamped and will be used in a new form for the ranked seasons to come. First of all, it strongly connects the paper and digital worlds, reinforcing the idea that whether you play paper, MTG Arena, or MTG Online, you are part of the same inseparable community—an idea that has always been championed by Wizards and that I am happy to see reaffirmed. Second, but not less important, it gives every single Magic player, from the most competitive of the pros to the little kid jamming starter decks, something to play for. We are not playing for soulless points of ELO, meaningless ranks named after precious metals, or worthless in-game rewards (like way too many online games ask us to do these days)—we are playing for a chance at glory. We are playing for a dream.

Decklists

Best-of-One is a strange beast, and Duo Standard is even stranger. With the deadline for decklists submission on March 20th, over a week before the tournament, I had less than three weeks to come up with a solid lineup for the event. Since the rules of the tournament did not allow to sideboard between games, the deckbuilding priorities change significantly.

The boxes I decided my decks should check were the following:

  • Have a proactive strategy.
  • Be able to beat anything with a good hand on the play.
  • Be able to abuse MTG Arena’s starting-hand algorithm in Best-of-One.

With those priorities in mind, my first choice was immediately obvious: I would be playing Mono-Red.

Deck 1: Standard Mono-Red

Creatures (19)
Ghitu Lavarunner
Viashino Pyromancer
Fanatical Firebrand
Runaway Steam-Kin
Goblin Chainwhirler

Spells (24)
Light Up the Stage
Skewer the Critics
Shock
Lightning Strike
Risk Factor
Wizard’s Lightning
Lands (17)
17 Mountain

The list is rather stock, so I will only talk about the oddity: the low land count. Why did I choose to play only 17 lands is a question the commentators asked themselves the whole weekend, and they even hinted at the answer: the starting hand algorithm that MTG Arena uses for Best-of-One matches. The secret spice is math.

Whenever you start a Best-of-One match on MTG Arena, the program doesn’t draw you a single hand with a uniform probability for every card in your deck. Instead, it provides you with seven cards chosen by a secret algorithm that we have only a vague, non-functional description of. How can we crack an algorithm we don’t even know? A precise description of what I have done is way beyond the scope of this article, but I would still like to give you a brief overview. I will get a bit technical but don’t worry—as the late E.W. Dijkstra said, “It is the type of mathematics that one can do with one’s hands in one’s pockets.”

Imagine we are playing a paper deck, and we want to determine the optimal land count for it. In order to do so, we play a very long series of games. Whenever we get mana-screwed in a game, we add one land to the deck before the next one; whenever get mana-flooded, we similarly remove one. If we imagine that this experiment went on indefinitely, eventually we will converge to the right land count, no matter how many lands we started with, even if the initial land count was something ridiculous like zero or 60.

Due to the inherent variance of the game, the process won’t converge to a precise amount but rather to a probability distribution. A process of this kind is known as a Markovian process, and the resulting distribution is the static distribution of the associated Markov chain.

“But Edo, Frank Karsten has tables for the correct number of lands, and his articles clearly say that if you play the incorrect amount you are literally stupid and should burn in hell next to the people who can’t derive constant functions!” Yes, but not using the would-be correct numbers was exactly the point: at no point in our thought experiment did we use any knowledge of the shuffling algorithm—we always treated it as a black box. Therefore, if we replace the “uniform distribution” algorithm used in paper with the MTG Arena black-magic-powered one, we will get a different set of numbers, but the idea will still work.

Due to time constraints, I couldn’t play a large enough sample of games for my findings to be scientifically sound, but what I found was that the peak of the output distribution was at 17 lands, a number that might seem low to those who are used to playing paper, but was also anecdotally believed to be correct by many other Best-of-One players.

Choosing a second list proved to be problematic, as I wanted something that played well with my first choice of Mono-Red. I dabbled with GW Angels for a while, but I eventually settled on GW Tokens as I thought it would play a similar role, but more powerfully.

Deck 2: Standard GW Tokens

Creatures (14)
Tithe Taker
Trostani Discordant
Venerated Loxodon
Emmara, Soul of the Accord

Spells (26)
Saproling Migration
Flower // Flourish
Unbreakable Formation
March of the Multitudes
History of Benalia
Conclave Tribunal
Legion’s Landing
Lands (20)
Forest
Plains
Temple Garden
Sunpetal Grove

Again, a rather stock list. Observe the land count reduction: in paper you would play at least 21 lands.

Even though I like what I ended up playing, some of the premises that led me to that choice were admittedly flawed. In particular, I vastly underestimated the power and popularity of Esper Control, thinking that players would be afraid to bring it to the table due to the unpredictability of Best-of-One. It turned out that the field was narrow enough for a reactive strategy like Esper Control to be powerful and successful, contrary to my initial belief.

Mythic Invitational Group Stage

Round 1 vs. Christian Hauck (BG Explore, Esper Control)

The first professional REL match of my career ended up being a 2-0 victory. The matchup coin flip put my Mono-Red against his Esper Control, which I defeated in a rather uneventful Game 1. Game 2 brought the match to an anti-climatic finish as my opponent, now on BG Explore, mulliganed to a mediocre six-card hand, which my GW Tokens’ excellent seven-card hand easily defeated.

Round 2 vs. Shahar Shenhar (Esper Control, Mono White)

Once again the matchup coin flip favored me, aligning his Esper deck against my Mono-Red deck in Game 1 and his Mono-White decks against my GW Tokens deck in Game 2. Game 1 was very tense—after trading away resources as expected, I had Shahar within burn range  when the top of the deck graced me with a Lightning Strike to end the game. Game 2 was much easier as the matchup was highly favorable for me. An early start quickly snowballed and put the game out of reach for my opponent.

Round 3, feature match vs. Luca Van Deun (BG Explore, Esper Control)

The Game 1 pairing featured my Mono-Red deck against his Esper Control deck, which resulted in a nail-biting game that I narrowly won. After the usual flurry of burn and removal, my opponent ended up at five life with a Jump-Started Risk Factor on the stack targeting him. To everyone’s surprise, he decided to go to one life. The following turn, fearing that my opponent could have lifegain in hand, I elected not to go for the kill, waiting to amass a sufficient amount of burn to kill him even in response him gaining life. My opponent’s choice to tap mana a couple turns later eventually forced the issue, allowing me to land an series of exactly lethal spells. It was a pretty difficult game that earned me some street cred; in particular, the post-game wink to the camera that I did as a pressure release gesture made the internet crowd go ballistic.

Luca was unfortunately mana-screwed in Game 2, which I won without him being able to put up any resistance, putting me into Top 16.

The Hype

I never learned to play an instrument, but in spite of that—or probably because of that—I am amazed by the power of a good musician. Concertists train their skills for thousands of hours, they study monumental tomes of theory, they continuously talk to other professionals. But the listener need not know any of that to find joy in music—when the artist walks on the stage, the almost unbearable weight of their knowledge is overshadowed by the almost unbearable lightness of their performance.

The incredible and frankly unexpected response that I got on social media after “the wink game” made me connect the dots: what brought me on the Mythic Invitational stage and allowed me to do well on it wasn’t a momentary stroke of genius, but thousands of games of practice, hours spent running the numbers, long conversations with my playgroup honing my technical play. But does the watcher need to know any of that to find joy in a sweet play?

And if Magic players, musicians with cards as their instruments, are the chemical reaction that turns hours of dull work into moments of emotion, then hype is the catalyst. Hype is what makes people care about the games, what makes them feel interested and invested in watching pieces of digital cardboard being shuffled around. Our job as players is to show our game in its beauty; critique, analysis, and overly detailed tournament reports are for specialists.

Don’t be sad that you can’t talk to the public about the depth of the game’s theory. Be grateful that you have an avenue to make them a part of our world, if only for a brief moment. Or you would rather introduce someone to music by explaining them the score of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony?

Mythic Invitiational Top 16

Round 1 vs. Andrea Mengucci (Mono White, Esper Control)

The Italian mirror match started with Andrea’s Mono-White deck against my Mono-Red deck. A removal-light hand on my side and an early Venerated Loxodon on my opponent’s quickly end the game, forcing me to win a difficult Game 2 with GW Tokens against Esper. And win I did, thanks to a slow hand on Andrea’s part, which was poorly matched against my explosive start.

Game 3 was a very tense affair, featuring my Mono Red against Esper. I managed to reduce my opponent’s life total within burn range, banking that the top of my library would be kind to me, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. Andrea’s skillful play managed to stabilize the situation in a couple of turns to run away with the match.

Round 2, feature match vs. Amy Demicco (Mono White, GW Tokens)

On the verge of elimination, my second match of the Top 16 pit my Mono-Red deck against Amy’s Mono-White deck in Game 1, which Amy managed to win by stabilizing behind a stronger board and eventually turning the corner. Games 2 and 3 were both GW Tokens mirror, and although I did play them mostly correctly, I had very strong hands in both of them that allowed me to overpower my opponent and stay alive in the Top 16 Loser’s Bracket.

Round 3 vs. Reid Duke (BG Explore, Mono White)

I reached my playing station submerged by reverential fear after I discovered I would be playing against New York legend and Magic heartthrob Reid Duke for my next elimination match. But I got lucky, managing to walk away with two quick wins, first with my Mono-Red deck against Reid’s Mono-White deck thanks to a double Goblin Chainwhirler, and then with my GW Tokens against his BG Explore deck on the back of an unstoppable early game charge.

I had eliminated Reid and became one of the last eight remaining players at the Mythic Invitational—the Top 8, if you will.

Round 4, feature match vs. Ondrej Strasky (Mono Red, Esper Control)

Having clinched Top 8, I was two matches away from the glory of Top 4, but also one match away from being knocked out. Yet again my opponent was no slouch: successful pro and fellow MTG Arena qualifier, Ondrej Strasky. The match started on the right foot as my GW Tokens got paired against Ondrej’s Mono-Red deck, a favorable matchup for me on paper. Unfortunately, my opponent managed to find a second Experimental Frenzy after his first one was exiled by Conclave Tribunal, generating so much value that I was forced to concede.

With my back against the wall, I had to win with Mono-Red against Esper Control. I boldly kept an otherwise very strong one-lander (a decision that I still defend as correct), but fortune did not help the bold this time. I never drew the second land and Ondrej moved on to Top 6.

That was the end of the road and I was out of contention.

Commentary

On Sunday, being out of the Top 4, I had plenty of time to sit down, relax, and watch the final games of the tournament as a spectator. I have to say that the coverage team was truly exceptional—from Marshall Sutcliffe, David Williams, AliasV, and Paul Cheon’s expert play-by-play, to Sean Plott and Brian Kibler at the analyst desk, and even Becca Scott’s entertaining interviews—it felt like everyone was in the right role, offering a superb viewing experience that could rival any sports coverage.

The tournament was ultimately taken down by my fellow countryman Andrea Mengucci, who managed sweep through the Top 4 undefeated, bringing home the trophy and the generous check. I can’t help but feel extremely happy, both for him personally and for the Italian Magic community, which undoubtedly stands to gain from Andrea’s stellar performance.

Duo Standard

The new competitive format featured at the Mythic Invitational, Duo Standard, was poorly received by the players and the community at large. It was criticized for being too swingy and for encouraging dull gameplay when compared to traditional Best-of-Three. Having played the format I can say that I prefer the single deck, Best-of-Three match format with sideboards. But I take the unpopular stance that it was a worthy experiment, and not at all a sign that Magic is dying but rather a sign of health and vitality.

Clearly the format was a compromise. It was designed to give some competitive depth to Best-of-One, which would otherwise be completely unplayable at high levels. But any format at all, in one way or another, is a compromise: ideally, you would want a tournament to be played in a such a way that the best players always have the best shot at winning. However, you have to balance that goal against the necessity for a tournament to be relatable to the viewers and to at least resemble the experience of the game they feel on a daily basis.

We can’t call Duo Standard a success, but it did manage to be an interesting twist on pure Best-of-One. It is nice to see that Wizards is willing to experiment with new formats to keep the competitive scene fresh.

Final Thoughts

It was an honor for me to be allowed to play face to face with some of the best players to ever sleeve up a Magic deck. No ladder placement, match result, or tournament finish can change the fact that I can only continue to learn from them.

My experience at the Mythic Invitational was memorable and what made it so great were the competitors, the staff, the people at home watching me and rooting for me. In one word, it was the community that made the tournament so great. Many have tried to explain why the event was so successful, and I will add my two cents as well: it succeeded because we wanted it to. Because you, the reader, cared enough to watch it, and then to read this article. And so did thousands of other people around the world, who love Magic and want to see it being great.

Huge props to the Magic community.

Huge props to all of us.

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