News : Net-decking or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the rhino : 29 December 2014

Net-decking or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the rhino : 29 December 2014

By Neil T Stacey

Net-decking is a term, often derisive, for the practice of playing a deck that is taken from the internet. For new players, it’s an appalling practice, reeking of laziness and greed. It seems almost like cheating; circumventing the whole process of building a deck and piggybacking on someone else’s hard work.  For experienced players, it’s a total non-issue. Making use of online resources is such a basic and fundamental part of competitive Magic that it’s difficult for a lot of players to even engage with a person who sees it as a bad thing.

And yet, a high percentage of new players go through the phase of using ‘net-deck’ as a dirty word. They take it as read that net-decking is a problem and get frustrated that not everyone seems to grasp this obvious concept. Experienced players don’t use the term net-decking at all; they take it as read that it’s a non-issue and get frustrated that not everyone seems to grasp this obvious concept.

You would expect that people playing the same game would be able to converse with a common language. Instead, both sides are frustrated by a total inability to communicate. So where does this disconnect come from?

Imagine a cricket player walks out to the crease, but he’s holding the bat in a really weird way. As his or her batting partner, you would of course walk across and demonstrate the right way to hold a bat. Now imagine he looks at you askance and says “No way, buddy. I don’t net-bat. I’ll hold it my way.”

You’d roll your eyes and just wait for this moron to get out. Now, if you weren’t playing cricket and were instead playing ‘Hold A Bat in Interesting Ways’ it would be an entirely different story. By suggesting a conventional grip, you would be the one playing the game like a moron. The net-decking discussion, similarly, arises from two people who don’t realise they are playing different games.

For most people when they’re just starting out, Magic is about getting new cards and building better decks. There’s this journey of discovery where you find new principles of deckbuilding, new ways of approaching the game and a seemingly endless variety of strategies and combinations. There’s also this process of gradually acquiring more powerful cards, which plays out kind of like levelling up in an RPG game. That process of improvement is enjoyable and rewarding but it falls apart when you show up at a tournament and discover that everyone else used cheat codes to skip to level 99.

The perception that everyone is netdecking is particularly disheartening because our initial experiences of Magic condition us to undervalue the role of play skill. Initially, improving results is a simple matter of upgrading your deck. Practicing specific matchups isn’t the most useful way to spend your time when your deck full of seven-drops has eighty cards and only twenty lands.  Play skill is irrelevant in the presence of sufficiently large disparities in deck quality.

Subtle metagame adjustments and side-boarding intricacies are trivial when there are still sweeping improvements to be made to your deck. In this way, our early experiences with Magic condition us to fixate on deck improvement and disregard other factors. To a player just starting out, what determines how you do in a tournament is the deck you show up with. From that perspective, if everyone shows up with the best decks then success in Magic is only about spending money and getting lucky. That perception must be off-putting to say the least and I’m sure it accounts for a lot of new players who quit the game.

Plenty of players make the transition to appreciating the challenges and intricacies of tournament Magic but I have to wonder how many we lose.

Most people want to be good at their hobbies, and Magic players are no different. To test whether you are good at Magic appears fairly straightforward; if you go to tournaments and overall you win more than you lose then you are better than average within the context of your tournament scene. Seems simple enough, right? If you are playing Magic, your competitors are the people you are playing against. Not so if you are intent on measuring yourself as a deckbuilder.

Because so many people play Magic and there is such an abundance of information available, if your aim is to come up with the best deck in a format, you are in fact competing with every person who plays that format in a public setting. It is certainly possible for any player to come up with a good deck, and from time to time it will happen. However, if you’re willing to remove your rose-tinted glasses and test your deck ideas without bias, you’ll find that most of them don’t hold up.

That’s true for even the best deckbuilders in the world. It’s a simple matter of numbers. It is wildly unrealistic to expect to consistently outdo all the other deckbuilders in the world so we all have to eventually give up on the dream of producing a steady stream of dominant decks.

That said, every player is capable of finding out new things about a format, if they are willing to put their minds to it and put in the necessary effort. When I say find out new things, I don’t necessarily mean unknown combos or off-the-wall strategies. I’m referring to little things, like coming up with a sideboard strategy that fixes a deck’s bad matchup or working out that a particular card is effective in a certain situation. You can even find an edge by testing different lines of play to see which one yields the best win percentage; sometimes what you come up with runs counter to other people’s assumptions and that’s an advantage right there.

These edges all seem trivial, but they add up. Finding them takes is hard work, however. To confirm a result, you have to play enough games for a statistically valid sample, which is way more than you might think. You have to be objective enough to discard your own biases. Just because an idea is innovative doesn’t mean it’s actually good, even if there are reasonable arguments for it. The thing with reasonable arguments is that regardless of how reasonable they are, they never amount to a fact, no matter how high you pile them up. At some point you have to shelve the debate and sit down to get some real data.

I know it’s difficult to just discard a cool idea after hours of testing it. But if you aren’t willing to let go of an idea that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, then you’ll be stuck with bad ideas along with the good. Finding data demands effort, and believing what you find takes discipline when it contradicts what you expect or want.

Success in Magic, as in any other hobby, requires a lot of effort. Throwing together new decks is easy. Rigorously testing them is not. Accusing people of net-decking is also easy. Accepting defeat and learning from it is not.

Personally, I am a deckbuilder at heart. Of the time that I devote to Magic, most of it by far is spent on throwing together new brews or looking for new angles on existing archetypes. The creative aspect of deck construction is what drew me to Magic, and it’s what keeps me playing.

I don’t, however, expect it to win me many tournaments. Like everyone else, I have to rely on hard work for that.