A little bit of theory to go with your practice

Over on twitter, Russell Tassicker (who you may recognize from his ManaNation writing) asked what our favorite Magic theory articles of all time were.
I decided to go ahead and list the ones that have really stuck in my head before I checked in on some of the other responses. This could be a way of keeping my answer “pure,” but it’s more likely to be a way for me to shame myself over the articles I’ve forgotten.
The gigantic (gigantic!) caveat here is that I was out of Magic from 1996 through about 2007 or so, which means that there are probably good, influential pieces in the middle there that I have not yet backtracked all the way toward.
This ended up being a long post, so click through to the extended for the rest.


With that caveat in mind, here are my current standouts:
Who’s The Beatdown by Mike Flores (read it at SCG or top8games)
This one is a bit of a gimme, but it was super-useful reading as I came back into the game, and it helped clarify something I was experiencing as I returned to tournament Magic – namely, mis-assignment of role and the resulting game loss.
If you haven’t read it, this article is your basic primer on how you need to think – and rethink – about playing to win each game as it happens.
Rethinking Investment Theory: Everything Has Haste by Zac Hill (read it at SCG)
Man, that is a clunky title, Zac.
This was an amazing article for me, as it came out at the beginning of last year and explained why I was playing the creatures I was playing.
If you check out the episode of The Magic Show covering Pro Tour Valencia (you can watch it here), you’ll hear Zac Hill say that Tarmogoyf “just attacks and blocks.”
At Valencia, Zac played an apparently midrange deck that eschewed Tarmogoyf because, as hyper-efficient a beater as ‘Goyf is, it did not essentially advance the deck’s game plan. Instead, Zac played a host of creatures with relevant abilities that could immediately impact the game.
Because, as Zac details in this article, you want all your cards to have haste — that is, to impact the game immediately. It explains a lot about why Sorceries and Instants have traditionally outperformed creatures, and why the rise in high-impact creatures that we’re currently experiencing in Standard hinges on cards like the Titans, each of which does something of note the turn it arrives.
Creating a Fearless Magical Inventory by Sam Stoddard (read it at SCG)
You see, theory isn’t just about how the game rules work. It’s also about how we work.
A lot of the things I write these days that might be considered “theory” are more about the theory of the player. Sam’s article, which I ended up reading because Doug Linn referred to it, is a lovely breakdown of not just “things that mess with how we play” but “how to figure out the things that mess with how you in particular play.”
One of the things I like about this article – and Sam’s writing in general – is that they present tools or ideas that will leave you legitimately feeling better about yourself, because you’ve improved as a person. Contrast this with any number of frenetic Magic articles that chide you for your failings and treat Magic play skill as if it were life or death, rather than a reflection of any number of other aspects of yourself and your life.
Schools of Magic by Rob Hahn (read one version of it here)
Here we’re going in the wayback machine, to Rob Hahn’s Schools of Magic article.
I know the version I’m linking to isn’t exactly the one I read back in the day, but you’ll get the gist from reading even this more refined version.
In my writing these days, I tend to repeat…or perhaps, pound on…the idea that you should be able to explain what your deck does. What is its high concept? How does it win?
Or, to put it another way, what is its philosophy?
Schools of Magic was the first coherent attempt to assign philosophies to all the major archetypes in a format, and then to explain in detail how the cards used in each archetype forwarded its philosophy.
But this is not a selection made just out of historical interest. It’s also one of my favorite theory articles because people still don’t do this nearly frequently enough. Hahn’s article surpasses the sort of superficial narrative exploration of formats writers tend toward and arrives at the level of analysis.
It’s something to aim for.
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Circle? by Dan Paskins (read it at SCG)
Rich Hagon and Craig Jones have both made Dan Paskins sound like a truly entertaining guy. He’s supposed to be behind various Magic “bonus games” at tournaments, like “the player who kills the most Elves today wins” and “most overkill damage wins,” the latter one being a contest to see who can deal their opponent the most damage in excess of the amount required to kill them.
You wouldn’t expect that guy to be all that afraid of anything, and that’s kind of the point of this article.
“The Fear” is a statistics, deckbuilding, and game theory article masquerading as a psychology piece. It’s about making a realistic assessment about what hate cards you will face if you bring a known, powerful archetype to the table — and how much that really matters.
Everyone else?
I honestly find it hard to think about overarching theory articles. I realize that first of all, I haven’t archived quality Magic written content in the same way I archive science articles. Clearly, this needs to change. Second, there are some writers who just sort of maintain an “aura of theory” in their writing. PV is a good example of this, as key elements of theory are baked into most things he writes, sometimes coming to the fore in articles like How to Avoid Bad Ideas.
Similarly, a lot of content from Mike Flores (outside of his classic cited above) contains useful elements of theory.
…and so forth, for many writers.
Okay, that was my semi-off-the-cuff list. Now that I’ve decided, what did everyone else suggest?
Gavin Verhey’s list
Information Cascades in Magic by Pat Chapin
Making Decisions in Magic by Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa
The Danger of Cool Things by Chad Ellis
One Game by Richard Feldman
Why We Need to Kill Tempo (and How to Replace It) by Richard Feldman
Who’s the Beatdown? by Mike Flores
Interaction Advantage (or Card Advantage is Wrong, Kinda) by Zac Hill
Rethinking Investment Theory: Everything Has Haste by Zac Hill
Stuck in the Middle With Bruce by John Rizzo
Stuck in the Middle with an Excuse by Gavin Verhey
The Most Important Word in Magic by Gavin Verhey
How to Win When You Draw Terribly by Travis Woo
Gavin also linked to pretty much everything by Zvi Mowshowitz and this big page of stuff at MTGSalvation.
Sam Stoddard’s list
Like me, Sam had a shorter list. His was:
Information Cascades in Magic by Pat Chapin
The Philosophy of Fire by Mike Flores
Stuck in the Middle With Bruce by John Rizzo
Addendum…if I were self-nominating
I intentionally avoided naming any of my own articles in my answer, but if I selected theory-oriented articles that many people have told me they’d applied and used for their own games, the list would definitely include:
Observe, Orient, Decide, Act
Think Less and Play Better
Think More and Play Better
Play to Your Strengths, Play to Reality
A Tale of Six Seasons (which is oddly not on the site right now)
Ya Gotta Have a Plan