23/17—Track and Release

This week our topic is something that some people might find boring, but when you get into it actually really deepens your experience of Magic: The Gathering: keeping track of stuff. To adapt Socrates’ famous dictum, “The unexamined game is not worth playing.”

We’ll get to the more complicated stuff in a minute, but first let’s discuss a very basic yet very important function of the game, which is keeping track of life totals. In my experience, there are three types of Magic players: Those who use dice to track life, those who use pen and paper—and those who don’t. (A small subgroup are those who use some app on their phone, but this happens less than you might think, and I’m not sure of the practice’s tournament legality.)

This first group of life-trackers are your classic casual players (not that there’s anything wrong with that): the men or women who sit down across from you and carefully set out a pair of 20-sided spindown dice with the expansion symbol (aka the “20”) facing up, one for you and one for them.

That’s fine, but obviously if you’re trying to play competitively, that’s not going to fly. I’m not sure of the legality of using 20-sided dice to keep track of life totals in sanctioned tournaments, but either way it’s not a great idea. Why? Simple: 20-sided dice get knocked over and roll around easily. So keep the dice to kitchen-table casual duels.

The other end of the spectrum are the guys who are so over-confident that they make no effort to track life totals, and leave it up to you—the opponent—to do so. This always mildly infuriates me, because not only does it convey an inherent disrespect for one’s opponent, AKA me, it’s also just an incredibly sloppy way to play. If there is a life-total discrepancy and a judge gets called, who is the judge going to believe? The guy who’s got a story, or the guy who’s got a pad of paper with all the life-total changes jotted on it?

And that’s the way you should play: with pen and paper. Some people use a little notebook to do this, but that’s probably not the best idea, as you could get dinged by a judge for using “outside information,” if your notebook happens to have, well, other notes in it. Do yourself a favor and just grab one of the many free life pads that vendors commonly hand out at PTQs and GPs, and keep a stack of them at home.


Record every change in life total, and announce those changes as you do so. “21-19?” I’ll say, about a million times, as the first part of an Orzhov mirror. “21-19,” my opponent confirms. The reason to announce the change, in addition to marking it down, is that it’s much easier to correct a discrepancy right when it happens than a turn or two after the point at which your and your opponent’s estimation of the life totals diverged.

Some people even go so far as to recommend noting what caused each life-total change, but this to me seems sort of insane, plus overly time-intensive. I’m not the fastest player (or writer), so I don’t want to waste overmuch time with bookkeeping. At big tournaments, however, I will jot down the names of specific cards my opponents play against me, in order to keep these cards in mind during sideboarding.

Also think about creature tokens. If you are worried that the way your opponent is indicating their creature tokens will be confusing, ask them to clarify. I often carry around a stack of tokens in my deck box for just such an occasion. Sometimes I use hotel key-cards, which I used to collect from when I traveled a lot for work, and use these as my tokens. This can get into a bit of a murky realm, however.


Case in point: At GP Philly, I was battling it out in the later rounds, still alive for day two, when at one point in I think round seven I cast the eight-mana sorcery Horncaller’s Chant, and put two 4/4 Rhino tokens (with trample) onto the battlefield. I used my hotel key-cards, as I didn’t have Rhino tokens. On my next turn, I swung in with a bunch of guys—including one actual creature card with trample—and my opponent started declaring blockers. “OK, I’ll block the one with trample with this guy,” he said, indicating the non-token creature, “and the 4/4 Rhinos with these two guys.”


He doesn’t know the Rhinos have trample, I thought to myself. I hadn’t meant to trick the guy, and he didn’t ask about the Rhinos stats, so I didn’t have a chance to lie (nor would I have)—he’d even just looked through my graveyard, and seen the just-played Horncaller’s Chant—so I didn’t feel like I was under any obligation to remind him of their French-vanilla ability.

But when it came time to assign damage, sure enough, my opponent had forgotten they had trample, and died as a result. Just make sure that doesn’t happen to you. In a high-stakes match, you can probably even call a judge over and request that he (the judge) provide real tokens for your opponent (or yourself) in order to avoid confusion. Don’t hesitate to call on the judges!

Another in-game record-keeping thing concerns upkeep triggers. Awhile back, you could not have anything on top of your library to remind you about an upkeep trigger, but a couple few years ago this changed. Now you can put a reminder to yourself—a die, usually (it just can’t be a card)—on top of your deck, to remind yourself to perform X upkeep activity or choice before drawing your card for the turn, which signals you have passed through your upkeep phase.


ALWAYS DO THIS. Don’t be cocky. Everyone at some point gets so excited about drawing a card that he or she will blow through his or her upkeep. Just (don’t) do it. Put a die on the deck, do your upkeep thing, draw your card, and replace the die. If the trigger is for something like, say, Assemble the Legion, which gets counters added to it each upkeep, I always put two dice on my deck when I first cast the card. Then, on the first trigger, I move one die to the card getting upkept, and leave the second one on the deck. I draw, and replace the second die. It’s simple, the effort is virtually nil, and the reward of never again missing an upkeep trigger is well worth it.

After the match you’ve also got some record-keeping to take care of. If I have any time between the match just ended and the next one, I take out my little Field Notes notebook—separate from my life pad—and note what the hell just happened. Partially this is for writing tournaments reports, for this blog and my emails to my friends, and partially it’s for being able to improve your game later. One of the best learning opportunities you have is actually playing the game, especially in high-intensity situations such as PTQs and Grand Prix. But if you just let everything that happens on a long GP Saturday mulch into one big blur in your brain, you’re going to have a hard time distilling any lessons from it—or soliciting opinions on what you should have done in X situation from your friends—at a later date.


Here’s what I think about and try to write down: What happened in the match I just played? What round was it, and what was my opponent’s name? What were the big or controversial/debatable plays? What cards did I sideboard in and out, and which cards performed well or poorly for me? Were there turning points in any of the games, where I could have gone down path X or Y? Which path did I take, and was it the correct decision, given the information I had available to me at the time? Oftentimes you don’t have a ton of time to do this kind of work, but it’s really educational—not to mention sort of meditative and restorative—when you can.

Also in this notebook, in situations where you do deck-registration—again, mostly PTQs and GPs—I keep a list of what my registered 40-card deck is comprised of. After all, once you fill out your deck-reg sheet, you turn it in to the judges, after which it (meaning the deck-reg sheet) is gone. In a long and grindy nine- or 10-round GP, especially if some of your matches go to or close to time, and you’re hungry and trying to get food and turn in your match slip and so on and so forth, it can get easy to get scrambled and maybe forget exactly what you sideboarded in and out during the last match.

So after you turn in your deck-reg sheet, before the first round starts, calmly mark down in your notebook exactly what your deck is made of. Then, after every match—win or lose—before you do anything else, consult this list and return your deck to this exact configuration. Shuffle up, put your deck in the box, and then go turn in your match slip. I realize that some judges say you should turn in your match slip before anything else after the match is over, but I feel like this is too important to let slip. Unless you’ve literally gone to time and won (or lost) on the last turn—in which case a judge is probably standing over you anyway, ready to snatch up the match slip—take a brief minute to get your deck in order for the next round before you do anything else.

Now the tournament is over, and you’re home. You took your notes, you kept track of everything—but how do you connect one tournament to the next? Simple: By keeping track of your win/loss record. It’s a stat that gets tallied in every major sport, but for whatever reason I don’t feel like you often hear about cumulative win/loss records and percentages for Magic players.

I didn’t always do this. I started last July, after listening to an old Limited Resources podcast in which former host Ryan Spain talked about his win/loss record-keeping. I even went and found the spreadsheet that he had made, and posted for others to use (although I didn’t end up using this particular one, as it seemed more complicated than what I felt I needed).

What I did was make a simple spreadsheet on Google Docs, with 10 columns: Date, Venue (whether Magic Online or IRL, aka “in real life”), Format, Wins, Losses, Draws, Packs won, Packs net (although I haven’t ended up actually using this one), Link (to a screenshot of the deck, for Magic Online tournaments), and Notes (which I fill out with a few words on the deck and how it performed, plus any noteworthy cards, situations, or match-ups). At the bottom, I have formulas that total up everything and average it out.

Screen Shot 2013-03-14 at 10.24.16 PM

Here is the link to my spreadsheet. Feel free to copy the format and use it yourself.

Using this document, I can see that since July 3, 2012 (when I started keeping track), I have played 373 matches of Magic in 144 different events. (I record pretty much everything Magic-wise I do except super-casual stuff, like EDH or testing.) I have won 198 of those matches, lost 172, and drawn three. I’ve won 205 packs, or 5.7 boxes (this is only for Magic Online, though, so it’s not totally representative).

According to this data, over the slightly-more-than-eight-month period between July of last year and now, I have a 53% win percentage, with 46% losses and 1% draw.

Is that the best win percentage ever? No, it’s not. But it’s mine, I know what it is, and I can see how it changes—or doesn’t—over time. (And it’s more than 50%, so hey.) I can also play around with the data, and see where my strengths and weaknesses are.

For instance, when I split the data in two, IRL and online, I see that my IRL record since last July is 58-59-3, or 48% wins, 49% losses, and 3% draws. That’s significantly less good than my overall record. Online, however, my record is much better, with 140 wins, 113 losses, and (of course) zero draws, or 55% wins and 45% losses.

What does that tell me? Well, it tells me that I play much more online than I do in real life (at least in terms of matches played, rather than time spent playing); that I do about 7% better online than IRL; and that I probably need to pick up my IRL game, especially if I want to be in contention at big events like GPs and PTQs.

Slicing the data another way, I can see that during the full M13 season, I finished with a 64-63-1 record (50% W, 49% L, 1% D); during the Return to Ravnica season, I closed out at 69-70-1 (slightly worse at 49% W, 50% L, and 1% D)—and, at least thus far during Gatecrash season, with 59 matches under my belt, I am doing quite well, with 36 wins, 22 losses, and one draw, for 61% wins, 37% losses, and 2% draws.

Obviously Gatecrash season is nowhere near over, so it remains to be seen whether I’ll be able to keep my streak alive. But the key is that, using this spreadsheet system, I’ll know. I will know whether I am getting better or worse—and, hopefully, I will be able to adjust my game and my practice to respond to that data.

That’s what people really don’t understand about Magic: that despite all its literally fantastic trappings, it’s really math made corporeal, numbers battling numbers in a mind-bogglingly complex dance. Everything can be reduced to percentages, to stats, and probabilities. Of course, you might not be able to divine all that on the fly, and much of what you learn about the game in this respect will be revealed to you as intuition—but the numbers are there, and if you look closely, they can tell you a great deal.

23/17 is a Hipsters of the Coast column focused on Limited play—primarily draft and sealed, but also cubing, 2HG, and anything else we can come up with. The name refers to the “Golden Ratio” of a Limited deck: 23 spells and 17 lands.

One Response to “23/17—Track and Release”
  1. Zac Clark says:

    Math… it’s not just for nerds… oh wait nm

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