Monday, November 19, 2012

review: the official miser's guide (omg) by michael j. flores

“But anyhow: what can a decent man speak about with the most pleasure?

Answer: about himself.”

-Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground

There are two main things Michael Flores is full of. He is full of himself, and he is full of shit.

The Official Miser’s Guide (or OMG, as he refers to it; since I find this sort of forced abbreviation distasteful, I will call it the Flores Audio/Reading Thing (FART)) is a “30+ day audio program that will help you refine your skills and understanding of competitive Magic: The Gathering.”

One of my go-to criticisms of Flores’s writing has been his constant namedropping, and he makes sure to… not address it, exactly, but sort of mention it offhand. He explains that “anyone who has been railbirding the best for as long as I have—anyone with any kind of a functional IQ, that is—can’t avoid having picked up something useful.”

The truth that it is quite possible to avoid having picked up something useful, just as it is possible to sell a $37 eBook about improving at Magic without containing much useful information for actually improving at Magic.

Flores thinks of himself as an expert in many things: deckbuilding, Magic theory, self-help, hypnosis, Pick Up Artistry, and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (don’t worry, we’ll get to those last two), but the area he seems most passionate about is marketing. Specifically, marketing himself. This isn’t something he talks about in detail until late in the book, but he’s a devotee of the sort of ~Internet Marketing~ that boils down to get-rich-quick schemes whose entire scheme is marketing the get-rich-quick scheme; ie, marketing that serves no purpose other than to market itself. This ideology is all over the book, starting from the two-page-long entirely unnecessary story in the first chapter about going to the premiere of Kick-Ass that serves no purpose other than telling the reader how great the book is and how much it will help them.

All art by Nick CK using quotes from The OMG

It also mentions ‘Who’s the Beatdown?’ (with a link to the article) three times. Only one of these times does say it’s “generally considered to be the greatest Magic article of all time,” but don’t worry, he’ll throw that in there nearly every other time he mentions it. Which is frequently. At this point, anyone I meet in person who mentions that article, Critical Mass, Napster, or New York States is going to get punched in the face just in case they’re Flores in disguise.

If it was true that his skill and insight comes from watching Pro Tour-caliber players and seeing what makes them win, then most of the book would be filled with analysis of other peoples’ great decks and great plays. Instead, nearly every example is either about Mike's Friend Jon Finkel, some low-level tournament Flores played in, or a deck Flores designed years ago for someone else to play. There have been so many great players, great decks, and great deck designers, that a genuine discussion about the varying approaches that modern deck designers take to defeat the metagame would be great to read. Instead, it’s all Flores, all the time. Just look at the homework he assigns in chapter 26:

“Compare Critical Mass to a preexisting U/G Legends deck. Name five ways that Critical Mass improves upon the existing U/G Legend deck’s speed or capabilities.”[1]

Where to start with this. There’s the fact that Critical Mass is only ever brought up either by Flores, or as a reference to his constant mentioning of it; there are much better deck designs to focus on if we want to see how a deck can be made incrementally better over time.[2]

His namedrops and constant crowing about the greatness of his past decks/articles isn’t because it’s incredibly relevant to the point at hand (it never is[3]), or even just because of his massive ego. As he comes around to informing us late in the book, it’s all part of a big self-marketing strategy. If he repeats in every article that he’s the best deck designer and that his decks were incredibly innovative and he’s totally won tournaments and he hangs out with the coolest Magic players and his writing is well-received and his dick is definitely NOT going soft, he’ll convince us of those things.

Flores’s constant chest-thumping would be more tolerable if people wading through it were rewarded with good advice for getting better at magic, like the crab meat one receives as a reward for banging on crustaceans with a hammer. Flores’s style is to give some uselessly-vague theory, then illustrate it with a completely non-illustrative example, and provide no general guidelines for applying the theory in everyday gameplay.

His first actual Magic-related advice is that we should pay attention not to whether a theory is true or not, but whether it is useful. He illustrates by talking about the “no wrong threats, only wrong answers”[4] guideline, then some almost-entirely-unrelated story about Napster, then a couple examples about how we should depart from traditional guidelines such as card advantage and playing instants at end of turn, then the guideline that “[a]ll things held equal, between two or more similar plays, the best play is usually the one that leaves you the most options.”

A simpler explanation for all these theories having easily-noticeable holes and tons of exceptions is that they’re bad theories.

After some not-very-notable review topics, Flores attempts to discuss concepts like a “trump” in a matchup. This could be a useful discussion, but only if he explains how we, as players, can figure out a trump in a specific matchup (or metagame). He does not do this. Instead, he tells us that Mageta the Lion was a trump in Masques Block Constructed, and that Rebel Informer was a false trump. Sure, that seems plausible. So how do we apply this knowledge to our everyday play? What are the heuristics we can use to distinguish a real trump from a false one? We never find that out. I assume that’ll be in the next book.

Flores has a couple Big Theories, and as an example, here’s the Grand Unified Theory of Magic. I’m not being smug when I give it initial capitals and a silly name; that’s actually what he calls it. The explanation:

“The Grand Unified Theory of Magic in its current form seeks to measure by a generic unit of one mana; briefly, this is how much a mana is worth:
● Deal two damage to the opponent.
● Draw one card.
● Put one permanent mana source into play.
● Gain some amount of life; more than three but less than, I don’t know... twenty.
These are about how much market value for these effects cost on playable Magic cards.”

This is so incredibly useless. Not only does two damage to an opponent not equal one mana, two damage to an opponent doesn’t even equal two damage to an opponent, nor does one mana equal one mana. As articulated in WHO’S THE BEATDOWN, one player is trying to control the game, while the other one is trying to end it; two damage to the beatdown is often close to irrelevant, while two damage to the control player is critical, and one mana from the beatdown player can be worth either much more or much less than the control player, depending on the stage of the game. Plus, there’s the fact that this Grand Unified Theory has absolutely nothing to do with combo decks, or decks that are in any way similar to combo decks.[5]

Flores does a disservice to Magic theory with ideas like these. They are simplistic, nearly impossible to put to use in actual gameplay or deckbuilding, and have more exceptions than they have supporting evidence.

Aside from his inability to teach Magic, there are so many other reasons to dislike this book. We get a few hints early, when he mentions some… non-Magical things:

“It’s the same reason that pickup artists use “peacocking” as a baseline strategy for getting the attention of desirable women. They aren’t concerned about looking silly. They can wear the same khaki pants and button-down oxfords as the next dateless guy leaning up against the bar, forgotten. The pickup artists wear their wooden goggles and neon green cowboy hats because they don’t want to blend in; they want to stand out.”

For those of you who are unfamiliar, the pickup artist (PUA) community is centered around using pseudoscientific psychological tricks and generally acting like an asshole[6] in order to sleep with women. The basic premise is that if you treat women as something between a calculus problem and a baseball card, you’ll be more successful with them. It should come as no surprise a) that a number of Magic players, unfamiliar with talking to women as if they were human beings, are more comfortable using a an overly-complicated and misogynistic “system” to attract them; and b) that it’s useless. There’s tons of information online about how hilariously awful PUA is, including my personal favorite, the PUA.txt twitter and tumblr.

But the misogynistic fun doesn’t stop there. Late in the book, we’re instructed as a homework assignment to come up with our “perfect average day.” As an example, Flores includes an MP3 of him reading “Samantha’s Perfect Saturday.” It is more horrific than I can possibly describe in text. First, let’s see how he describes it:

“After I put Samantha’s Saturday in front of a couple of extremely good-looking, yet career-focused twentysomethings, one of them literally cried and another said, ‘I wish life could be that cool.’


“That’s when I knew that I had gotten Samantha right.”

Samantha defines herself by her relationship with Sam, and obsessively looks after her appearance to make him happy. She loves shopping. She drinks Cosmopolitans. She makes out with her female friends in order to attract attention from guys. She picks out clothes for herself, but wears different ones based on what Sam wants. The overly-detailed description of her love for Sam is probably one of the grossest things I’ve heard in a while, especially since it’s read by Mike Flores.

“He is her emotional ball of sweat and hair, and big man muscles.”

I admit, I was unprepared for this, despite always expecting the worst from Flores. But this 14-minute MP3 of pure stereotypical misogyny is beyond anything I could have assumed he was capable of. Flores’s idea of the average attractive woman is someone who seems to have no thoughts beyond appearance, her weight, drinking, dancing, and her boyfriend, her boyfriend, her boyfriend. Even Sam gets to play some video games, while Samantha obviously has no idea what those ~silly boys~ are doing with their Playstation. Were it not for modern-day references like that, I would assume it was created in the 1950s as an example to young girls as to the way they’re expected to behave in order to secure a good husband.

What does this bonus MP3 have to do with Magic? Absolutely nothing. Oh, but there’s a male equivalent that he writes about: the guy (named Sam) has a perfect day by winning a PTQ, then receiving a text from “Misty” asking to “hook up.”

Let this be a lesson to all you wanna-be female gamers out there. Let’s leave the PTQ winning to us men, alright? Go back to making out with your friends while we watch.

Of course, Flores’s skills go far beyond gender studies. Let’s take a look at his expert psychological opinions, from Chapter 10:

“Language Lesson Numero Uno: Your unconscious mind can’t process a negative.”

“Don’t know what an embedded command is? Here is a nickel worth of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) training:

“An embedded command is an imperative hidden in a longer clause or sentence. The sneaky notion is that you can “implant” the imperative without your subject knowing it; embedded commands are a favorite technique used by pickup artists (but they obviously have broader applications than just meeting women).”

Will anyone be shocked if I reveal that Neuro-Linguistic Programming is a long-discredited pseudoscience, and that anything he tells us about the mental game of Magic based on it should be ignored completely? At least we’ll always have the phrase “your unconscious mind can’t process a negative,” which is one of my favorites in a long time.

He also reveals that his LOVE MIKE signature is an embedded command to make you like him more.
Some people somewhere paid $37 for this.

Here’s the truth, though: studying mental tricks will barely improve your win percentages, if at all. Despite the legions of examples that he uses to illustrate barely-different cases of tricking one’s opponent, that’s not something that will come up more often in actual gameplay than one player making a huge mistake and the other capitalizing on it.[7] As someone that is not very good at Magic despite having played for over half my life, improving at the game is something I’d like to do. But reading yet another story about how Pro A totally pulled one over on Pro B doesn’t help me decide whether to take the common removal spell or the uncommon flier in my next draft.[8]

The final couple chapters don’t even pretend to help the reader win games of Magic. Instead, they’re all about building one’s personal brand. As you might expect from Flores’s self-help/con artist manner of writing and promotion, his advice is given in chapter 29 by telling people the story of how he got where he is, and… that’s about it, really. In the final chapter, after slogging through analysis of his Samantha and Sam perfect day stories, he tells us how to become Twitter-famous.

This book is the product of the most cynical marketing possible; not only does it advise using a fun bit of the Internet solely for self-promotion and saying things that will get you attention rather than saying things that are correct or interesting, but he subscribes to a worldview where everyone is prone to simple psychological tricks.

I’m sure it’s possible to write a book-length guide to getting better at Magic. Such a book would have to be honest with its audience about what it requires to get good: tons and tons of playtesting and discussion and revision and new decks and new hypotheses, all with players better than oneself. Getting better at Magic requires more work than most people aspiring to get good at Magic are willing to put in. This book, though, tries to give players shortcuts around all the hard work necessary, by instructing its readers to instead focus on dumb mental games and inaccurate theories that will help no one.

What is present in this book is either based on pseudoscience, a rephrasing of earlier articles he wrote, an unhelpful version of better articles other people have written, or some combination of the above. Stay far, far away from this book, and stay far, far away from Michael J Flores.


1  Is that quote more or less embarrassing than this one?

“Critical Mass represented a leap in technology and the pinnacle of what elite deck designers call THE Deck. Luckily it was unleashed at the tail end of the Kamigawa Block season, with only one Grand Prix and almost no PTQs left on the calendar. Many of you are probably not familiar with decks capable of winning 90% of their matches (Jon Finkel once won a PTQ with a deck he claimed had all good matchups; I only lost three games in that entire PTQ, but two were to Jon, playing for the blue envelope). These decks do exist. They just don’t last.”

You decide. I certainly can’t.

2  Gerry Thompson is the undisputed master of this. How about a discussion of the evolution of Mystical Teachings, when Gerry designed a mirror-beating version that splashed green for Gaea’s Blessing? Or how about the next ten times he designed an even-more-mirror beating version, tuned to beat his previous design? Or what about his work on Cawblade? Or UW Stoneforge in Legacy, during the height of SCG Open tournaments? Someone employed by StarCityGames, who thinks of himself as an expert at observing other players, should have seen one of the best examples of deck evolution and tuning happening right under his nose.

3  Parse the following paragraph and explain to me why this is an “example,” from a tortured bit of writing about how we’re all trying to get to our end goal (represented by “B”):

“For those of us who are theorists and drivers of the ideas that are helping to bring all Magic players closer to B, hopefully we are all adding to and improving our models of the world and how we can think about and improve at Magic. For example, most people think about ‘Who’s The Beatdown?’ as the single greatest Magic strategy article of all time. I wrote that in 1999. To give you some context, I had not yet produced my first US Nationals Top 8 design and was more than ten years out of my first World Championship-winning brew, hopefully the first of many. And while ‘Who’s The Beatdown?’ is very good, so are lots of other contributions, like ‘How to Think About Magic’ or ‘How to Win a PTQ.’”

4  Flores thinks this has some validity, but it’s fairly easy to prove it to be useless. I’ve played Storm and pumped the fist when my opponent plays Mogg Fanatic, because Mogg Fanatic was the wrong threat. There is nothing unique about either threats or answers that makes one of them “right” or “wrong” more often than the other one; going further, the classification of some things as “threats” and some as “answers” is wrong itself, but that’s an entirely other article.

5  Since the first articles about Magic theory, combo decks have been a bit of a sticking point; something to be handwaved away, or used as an exception, rather than a core part of the theory. While one argument might be that this shows how weird and unusual those combo decks are, I think it instead shows both the weaknesses of these theories and the strength of Magic as a game that it’s so difficult to sum up in some short, easy-to-remember theory. The only theoretical framework that has managed to include combo decks without twisting itself into an unrecognizable mess of exceptions and contradictions is Zac Hill’s Interaction Advantage (a theory that, while many times more accurate than competing theories, is so vague that it can be summarized with “do stuff that wins while stopping your opponent from winning”).

6  An example: “negging” a woman by saying something negative about her while hitting on her; ie, insulting her.

7  Contrast with Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, who published an excellent article on Channel Fireball about playing lands. This is something that, while rather corner case-y, does have an impact and is something overlooked and under-written-about, unlike the fantastically overrated and overstudied mental tricks that people are occasionally successful with. Does Flores, in this 30-chapter book, have anything to say about playing lands, or other basic mechanical aspects of Magic? Nope!

8  By the way, he includes no drafting advice in the book. I assume his advice would be to tell the person passing to you “don’t take the worst card.”

Thursday, November 1, 2012

spec ops: the line: the review: the title

Spec Ops: The Line is a game recommended to me by someone who said it made him feel physically ill. If you don’t think that’s a wholehearted recommendation of the game, then you have pretty boring opinions about what makes games worthwhile to play. For those who haven’t heard anything about it, it’s a modern war game set in Dubai, and describing the concept for people that haven’t played it beyond that will take away from what it’s trying to do. I’m aware that sounds silly, but it’s necessary. (This essay is safe reading for those who haven’t played it until the disclaimer that it isn’t.)

I started the game at about six or seven in the evening two days ago. I stopped for dinner around eleven. I finished the game around three in the morning. I spent most of yesterday recovering from the experience.