Social Empathy and the Magic Condition

Posted on Monday, August 11th, 2008 by Marc Calderaro
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Posted in mtg, serious business

As Magic players, there’s a certain stigma attached to us. Sad but true, the standard mental picture of a “Magic player” to those unfamiliar with the community (at least, in America – talk to Richie Hagon about the fabulous life of European GP competitors), is somewhat of a “basement dweller”. Because I have no interest in being more negative than that term already is, I won’t expound more than that, but you get the idea.

The problem with this so-called Plutonic ideal of a Magic player is that it’s completely inaccurate. Though this disparaging image of Magic players proves somewhat true at the PTQ level — at large-scale tournaments (like, for example, Nationals) nary a smelly dude can be found. But why is that? Why the stark dichotomy between the top-level players and those below that? How can it be that the better players are consistently better kept? This is the exact issue some of us were discussing last weekend. A very smart person attributed it to a theory of “social empathy”. I’m going to talk a little about my thoughts on that theory and how it might even help you to become a better Magic player in the process.

*I’m leaving the name of the theory’s owner out of this article, not because I’m an egomaniacal jerk, but because some could view this theory as negative towards certain people and I don’t want to incriminate anyone other than myself. Though this idea is not meant negatively at all, I do see how it could be taken that way.*

Our group discussed the idea that all decent-to-good Magic players share at least one common characteristic; they are smart. Just like any decent basketball player is going to be athletic, Magic players have to be able to exercise their brain muscle more often than they’d like to admit. But brains doesn’t really mean much else. So although your average PTQ-er is going to be alright with the brain mechanics, they might not be the physical pillar of respectability (look at me, I’m slipping into the negative already). So it’s not just an IQ difference. There must be some other reason to why these players don’t they have what it takes to compete at the Pro Tour level?

Someone suggested Social Empathy. The ability to relate and commiserate with the people around you. The people who tend not to take good care of their bodies, or who can’t carry on a conversation without being judgmental, arrogant or just plain old rude, as a general rule, have a lower level of social empathy than those who can carry conversations better. And having this empathy isn’t just for your dueling partner, but also the people at your drafting table (to better define the correct picks), or the people who you playtest with (the better your social interactions the more you can play against the people it’s beneficial to play against–because they’ll want to play against you in the first place). Now, social empathy is far from a strictly positive attribute. Too much social empathy and you can become paranoid or an inactive over-thinker. But for the purposes of this article assume when I say “social empathy” I mean “a healthy and positive level of social empathy.”

How empathy can divide the decent players from the good players is very simple; if you are able to get into the minds of your opponents, it will be easier to deduce why they made the decisions they did, and thus making it much easier to play against them. Mike Flores talks all the time about this issue. When you’re getting ready to make a play, he says, ask yourself what your opponent would want you to do. Though this play doesn’t always differ from the play you eventually make, it will always help to figure out what your opponent is thinking. And if you’re in their head, you’ll be able to pull out that grinding, off-the-top game more often than not.

Sadly, For the most part, the people who decide it’s not in their best interest to appear kind, or presentable, either don’t have a great grasp on social empathy or choose to not care about it. And mastering this trait is a great way to master Magic. Because there are always three games going on at any given time in Magic: the game your deck is playing, the game your opponent’s deck is playing, and the game in which those two games overlap. Decent players can see two of those games, but good players always see the third: the game their opponents’ decks are playing. This idea extends further than, “He left three mana up; does he have Broken Ambitions?” But instead leads somewhere else: “If he’s got the Broken Ambitions, what is he expecting to counter? What would he let through? Why?” These are the type of questions that aim to get into that elusive third game, that, although they won’t always translate to wins, they will put you in a much better position to figure what your opponent is holding, what they are afraid of, and how you can take advantage of that information.

This is not to say, “If your opponent smells, you’re better than him.” This theory is merely a sociological idea attempting to get to the heart of why there is consistently a physical and social difference between people playing the Pro Tour and those that aren’t. This of course doesn’t mean that if you have social empathy you are a good player. As a PTQ scrub and someone who thinks about everybody else before me, I can tell you, all those strategy and skill articles are pretty damn important too as is practicing like hell.

But what the social empathy theory does mean, is if you constantly scour those strategy articles, always practice the right match-ups in a good way, and play the best decks for the given tournament, and you still don’t perform the level you want to, perhaps your level of social empathy is what’s keeping you down. Next time, when you’re testing all night, try to “put the read” on your opponent deeper than, “Is that a Flame Javelin, or an Incinerate?” Think about what he’d be saving such burn for in the first place. Think about what he’s hoping to top-deck, and how cool could he play it if he did draw the spell he’s hoping for. Oh, also this theory means take a shower before you get in the car.

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