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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

an awed critique of gerry thompson

Gerry Thompson is one of the most brilliant people that currently writes about the game or builds decks, which is part of what makes him occasionally frustrating for me to read. It’s not because his decks, advice, or general tech is bad, because I certainly haven’t done the weeks of testing necessary to refute something he says. In fact, I’ll go ahead and assume that when Gerry tells the audience a card is good in a certain situation, it really is. Instead, what’s frustrating is that he never lets us in on the underlying theory that would let the plebeians figure all this out for ourselves. Several writers (Zvi, Lapille, most recently Sacher) have referenced the old cliche about learning to fish versus receiving fish, and Thompson seems way on the side of giving out heaps of the highest-quality deep-blue-water savory fish known to mankind and not letting the rest of us even see the boat. Show us the boat Gerry. We want to understand it.



For years, Gerry has had the same role among the elite Magic players: changing last week’s deck for this week’s tournament and doing the same thing next week against what used to be his deck. Teachings, Thopter/Depths, Cawblade, UW Standstill. The Open Series simply gave him a wider stage for his skill; a format that rewards his unique way of changing his tactics while never changing his approach. Every week he tells us what he did this time in order to make the decks for himself and his friends better against the rest, every week he explains the interactions that make it possible and never telling us how he even found those ways of winning in the first place. How did you know that you wanted to be more aggressive in this mirror match? Why were you instead more controlling in the other one? Why does it win both times? It’s unlikely that there will ever be another person that does this with the same monotonous success as Gerry, because he has never told his readers how to accomplish it.

There are a few possible explanations of why this is. Oftentimes the people that are best at something don’t make for the best teachers of the subject, usually because it’s difficult to explain a concept that’s grown internally into something that’s no longer even a feeling or instinct but just a core part of the person. Jordan can explain the mechanics of a jump shot, sure, but it’s probably a waste of time for him to focus on such things and really he’d just reiterate what instructors told him when he was 15. Mike, can you explain exactly why and how on that drive you got past the first guy rather than going above/through him and how you knew the exact angle to throw the ball from beneath your chin so that it would both miss Shawn Bradley’s idiotic head and kiss gently off the glass into the net? Chances are, his response would be something like “it was just the right thing to do.” How can Gerry summarize years of playing this game for hours a day into simple sentences instead of just skipping all that and telling us what cards are good and what isn’t? It’s my honest hope that he learns how. This is just one possible trajectory for Gerry’s writing career. My fingers are crossed that he rejects the Floresian model of slowly drifting into beginner writing and 70s-rocker-still-recording style irrelevance. We’ve learned all there is to learn from Flores, yet he still writes.

A more conspiratorial explanation is that Gerry knows exactly how to articulate the concepts he’s been exploiting for advantage (both in tournaments and to explain the results of these tournaments) and is protecting this knowledge like a trade secret; the Coca-Cola chemist allowed only to describe the flavor of the product and the energy that went into creating it rather than the formula used. Or he could keep writing what people want to read: a weekly summary of the things he’s learned in the past week, all bottom-line lessons. Which is not to say that his articles are lists of quality finished products, because they’re not. The reasons that are given are simply a step removed from true relevance; the reasoning behind the reasons left to the imagination.

His writing of non-strategic material, summarized by the anecdotal Tales from The SCG Open Series, is probably the high point (along with Heezy’s latest article) of the truly inside Magic tournament writer, filled with jargon and references that read like writing down names, putting them in a hat, and tossing the hat at the screen. His stories appear to be written addressed to a handful of friends and accidentally made public to the unwashed masses of the game; the audience as voyeur looking in at the lives of people that can profitably play a game that is for the rest of us our entire hobby or entertainment budget. The world of high-level tournament play is so insular that each player’s stories start to resemble each others- each credit card game result eliciting guffaws from the players who know the results of each of the last ones and the names of everyone involved because they were there too. At its best it can be a view inside an often hilarious circle of friends and their best stories, at its worst like reading the quotes page of a yearbook twenty years and three continents away from the audience. Like much classic writing from the observers of a game, it could be modified to describe any other game but could only have been produced by the one in question.

2 comments:

APL said...

Going with the MJ example, I'm pretty sure he'd explain it with the ungodly amount of time MJ spent practicing. While he was one of the greatest atheltes of all time he didn't just wake up and know how to play and he didn't learn those skills from watching TV or reading a book. He went on the court everyday after school and practiced.

Same with Magic, you may not get why Gideon fell out of favour with CawBlade or Teachings went hellkite/relic.
Spend some more time playing magic. Play online, play with friends and maybe you'll be able to find out how winning is possible

The Author said...

If you're correct and it's all simply a matter of practice, then that makes much of the field of Magic writing- essentially everything other than how to get the most out of practice time- irrelevant for the sake of progressing the game further because the answer will always be "just go practice more." If GT really is MJ, well, there's a reason MJ was a player and not a writer about the game.

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