Scouting refers to the process of actively gathering information about what people are playing in between rounds. Maybe you finished your round early, and so you walk around the room and observe the other games. Perhaps when pairings go up you ask a friend if they know what your opponent is on. It provides a nice little advantage as you can now make more informed mulligan decisions. In older formats such as Legacy, the value of knowing what you’re up against goes up even further, because decks are so widely different from each other.
While walking around the room to see what other people are playing if you find yourself with some spare time between rounds is generally not considered much of an issue, there has been a lot of debate regarding scouting recently, as the public has started to realize how much more organized scouting is at the professional level is. As a result, several people have addressed this topic. Matt Sperling wrote an article on the topic, which you can find here. LSV recorded a podcast where he discussed the issue with a couple of other players. What they said was what most of us hadn’t fully realized; scouting at the professional level is organized, structured and well planned out. Sperling mentioned teams sharing spreadsheets online with a list of names and what those people were on. At this level of organization, a lot of people start seeing the concept of scouting as a lot more problematic. We all strive to maximize our advantages, but ideally those advantages should come from skills related to Magic. Someone having the upper hand because they have a better phone than you do, or because they have access to some online document doesn’t really fit this picture. I’ll get back to this topic in a moment, but before that I want to discuss something nicer, something that will actually help you get better at magic; how to scout.
No, I’m not talking about how you can organize your scouting process the same way it’s done at the Pro Tour. I’ve already expressed concerns with having a system that enables that sort of thing, and you could probably figure it out on your own. I’m not even necessarily talking about scouting either, at least not exclusively. I’m talking about the process of deducing information, of the different ways you can figure out what your opponent is on. First we have actual scouting, gathering information in between rounds. When I finish a round early in a medium size tournament I’ll walk around the room and observe. I know people who bring a notepad and take notes here, but I don’t. I keep all my notes inside my head. If memorizing the decks of fifty different players seems like a daunting task to you, there are a few tips I can give you. First of all, if you’re not comfortable with it, you can always just take actual notes instead. If you insist on relying on your memory however, the first step is knowing how to use it in the most efficient way. There are plenty of books out there on how to improve your memory and master several forms of mnemonics. I have read some of them, and I highly recommend picking one up and learning about memory if you’re interested in that sort of thing. In my experience remembering what people I know are playing has been relatively easy. Those people already have an identity to me, and all I need to do is create a mental connection between them and the deck they’re playing. With people I don’t know I have to find something that identifies them. I’ll look for specific, visual details and in my mind connect them with their deck. “Of course that woman in the hat is playing Reanimator”. It doesn’t have to make sense. The point is that when I sit down versus one of those people I will notice the specific detail and be reminded of what deck they’re playing. Our minds remember connections. Sensory input, such as images, is easier to remember than pure abstract information.
Once we sit down at the table there is no more time for scouting. What we do have is the opportunity to get a read on our opponent. During round one at GP New Jersey my friend and I hung out at the feature match area and had a lot of fun reading the players, figuring out what they were on. One player was still wearing his Tom Ross style jacket, and was barely in his seat. This person had shown no intention to make himself comfortable. Why would he, if the match was going to be done so soon? We figured he was on a very fast combo deck, one that wasn’t among the decks to beat. His deck? Oops, All Spells! We also did this for other players in the feature match are, and guessed correctly there as well. These guessing games are obviously very exciting, and they can make you feel like a genius. Realistically though it’s better to take things with a grain of salt, and focus on tight technical play.
It’s also important to remember that most people talk more than they should. Chat with your opponent and they just might give you a clue to what they’re playing. Some people will even outright tell you. “I got Counterbalance online, but she had the Abrupt Decay”. Just be wary if they tell you they’re on Manaless Dredge (as they might be trying to game you in hopes of getting to be on the play), unless you’re paired against me of course, in which case I’m definitely on Manaless Dredge. Totally.
I’ve seen plenty of different propositions as to how the problem with organized scouting should be solved, and I’m not a fan of any one of them in particular. They all come with different advantages, and deal with different parts of the scouting process. In order bring clarity I have made an effort to dissect the scouting process.
“Players gather information and share it with others. Once they know who they are playing against, they retrieve that information, giving them an advantage that others do not have.”
We can’t realistically stop the first step of the process (gathering info). Players will have the info on their earlier opponents, and isolating players from other matches seems like a drastic solution, to say the least. The sharing of information can be made more difficult by disallowing electronic devices, but as we’ve seen pen and paper work pretty well for this purpose as well, and many people, like parents, need to be reachable. One popular solution in the comment section was changing the way that parings are presented. If you don’t know who you are playing against until you sit down at the table you won’t have time to start looking through your spreadsheet. This solution seems fine if you can work out the logistics behind it (not everyone has a smartphone), although it does disadvantage players with more of a public image as more people will remember what they’re on. People could also just keep their notes in paper form and still have access to the information, unless they modified the rules on keeping notes. Another popular suggestion was to simply publish everyone’s decklist, cancelling out the advantage that scouting provides. This takes away the advantage that scouting provides, but also the advantage of playing rogue decks, the element of surprise that comes from putting a twist on your list or having a certain tech. Essentially it makes innovative deckbuilding less attractive, and that would be a huge loss to the game. Not knowing what your opponent is playing is also what rewards you for being skilled at reading information out of the cards you’ve seen so far, and to an extent, bluffing. There’s another idea that hasn’t gotten as much attention strives to minimize the advantage that comes from scouting. One commentator suggested having split format pro tours. After all, if you’re only playing four rounds of a format there isn’t as much time to learn what everyone is playing. This would also prevent from formats from becoming solved to an extent, as top players would divide their preparation between more formats. This solution has fewer obvious drawbacks, but it is also perhaps the most radical proposition, and would be a major change to the current structure. I don’t expect this idea being implemented anytime soon, but I like it for how elegant it is. Also, any proposition that will potentially let me play Legacy at the pro tour is difficult to ignore.
Ultimately I’m not sure what the best solution is here, but I look forward to finding that out, and trust that Wizards will address the problem in a satisfactory manner.
You can find me on Twitter @SandroRajalin or leave a comment below!
Until next time,
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