The Return of Jonny Magic

18:59 Mon 18 Feb 2008. Updated: 23:43 18 Feb 2008
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Jon Finkel, one of two candidates for the title “best MTG player in the history of the game”, won his third Pro Tour title (in Kuala Lumpur) over the weekend—seven-and-a-half years after his last PT win. He’d been away from high-level play for quite some time, but came back last year after being inducted into the Hall of Fame (Hall-of-Famers get automatic entries into Pro Tours).

I consider this noteworthy because consistent success by individuals indicates that the skill element in the game is strong enough to overcome the luck element both over time and at the highest levels of play. That’s not a surprise per se, but rather something I’m glad to see reinforced.

There is clearly a lot of luck in the game. The draws you get, the matchups you encounter, and (in Limited) the cards you open. While it’s clear that skill can overcome this in the long term, I’ve wondered whether or not skill can overcome this in the medium term sufficient for good players to actually win tournaments with any consistency. That is, does being far more skilled as an MTG player (however that can be determined) give you enough of an edge in individual matches? Or does being ten times as good give you a 55%-45% edge, making it quite difficult to string together the wins required to win over a span of about 18 rounds?

Since players have definitely put together strings of consistent tournament results, it appeared that being more skilled provided enough of an edge to win tournaments. However, the game is quite young, and since Kai Budde stopped playing on the PT, no-one has been really dominant. This coincided with the rise of MTG: Online, which has raised the average skill level of serious players. That made me wonder whether or not the early dominance of players like Finkel and Budde was due to the fact that the larger pool of players just weren’t that good. Once MTGO game all serious players the chance to get to a basic level of competence, would the edge of the ‘really good’ players be too slight?

It could just be coincidence, but Finkel’s win appears to signal that this isn’t the case.

There are caveats: first, the statistical significance of a single win may be slight. Second, the format was a new one, as the final set was released on 1 Feb and isn’t in MTGO yet, so Finkel’s edge due to heavy playtesting with his play group might have been greater than a format that’s been online for a while.

Overall, I think that Finkel’s Kuala Lumpur win combined with his career success argues quite strongly that the skill factor in the game is very significant.

Jon Finkel career statistics at time of Hall of Fame induction.

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