On ‘Finkel on Finkel’

22:03 Thu 21 Feb 2008
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Brian David-Marshall interviewed Jon Finkel about his recent Pro Tour win, and I found some things Finkel said fairly interesting.

I’m not sure where he’d stand on my claim that his win validates the importance of skill in the game. He states, “I opened really well in this Pro Tour. You need to get lucky to win”, and, perhaps more interestingly:

There is a lot of randomness in this game. I think that I am in pretty good Magic playing shape—especially for draft. I think I was one of the half-dozen players most likely to win this tournament and I think that was also true for Prague. I happened to have one complete and utter train wreck of a draft and I didn’t make Day Two.

Take Zvi [Mowshowitz] in this Pro Tour…I think there is zero percent chance that in any match I have a five percent greater chance of winning it than Zvi does. It is possible that he was supposed to win more matches than I did. He had one train wreck of a draft and he didn’t make Day Two and no one heard about him.

In other words, you have to be lucky enough to not have a single terrible draft, which takes quite a lot of fortune. On the other hand, Finkel regarded himself as one of the top five most likely players to win both the PT he won (Kuala Lumpur) and one (Prague 2006) in which he placed 301st.

I have no idea what the actual chances of a “top five most likely” player to win are. Is it something like a 20% for one of the top five to win? So each has about a 4% chance? Is it some kind of function where their chances of winning versus the rest of those in contention rises as the field narrows (if they manage to stay in contention)? How likely was Finkel to win that top eight draft?

Putting numbers to any of these things is rather difficult, and might well be meaningless, unless one plans to start betting on MTG events (I wouldn’t advise it).

Finkel cited a couple of other statistics… he claimed that on MTGO his record in the PT format (Lorwyn/Lorwyn/Morningtide) was 17 wins out of 34 matches. Assuming some small number of draws, that’s barely over 50%. He also claimed that he’s “18-19″ in the same format (presumably referring to the group he plays with in New York?). If he meant 18 match wins and 19 match losses, that’s a low win percentage. If he meant 18 drafts where he won and 19 where he didn’t, that’s a somewhat higher percentage. Putting both together, though, it’s hard to see that arguing for skill as a factor—although what I’d really like to know is how many of those 34 online matches he was using purely to explore the format, deliberately trying odd strategies to see what worked. If a lot of the preparation was like that, then those statistics are less meaningful.

The skill gap is real, though, even with all the luck mixed in. There’s a reason I’ve never qualified for a Pro Tour, and a reason why no-one in the sfmagic crew (at least, not while playing actively in our group) has made day two of a Pro Tour—even while our group has some of the best results on the NorCal PTQ circuit—and that reason isn’t luck.

However, with MTG I still think that while practice is important, there’s something else. I’m certainly not going to say it’s raw talent, but some players have figured out how to pay more attention, be more focused, learn more quickly from games, something. It could also be that intense practice, rather than total practice time, is critical. I had that theory about FPSes, that one summer playing 40+ hours of Quake per week was going to produce a player than two years of playing five hours per week.

Who you play with is also hugely important. Of course, apart from all that, you have to be focused and dedicated.

Oh, Jon is definitely wrong about one thing: David Kushner’s work on Finkel’s gaming career is absolutely not “a well-written book”.

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