The Meaning of the Term

Feature Article from Jackie Lee
Jackie Lee
7/17/2012 11:00:00 AM
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This week, I would like to talk about the scrub.

You probably think you know who I'm talking about.

“I've seen that guy at FNM,” you say. “When I declared my spell, he flashed in a Mystic Snake with a nasally, 'Or so you theeeeeenk!' I pretty much couldn't resolve anything, that game.”

“Or are you talking about the guy I played at the M11 prerelease? He played Jace's Erasure on turn two, then I watched as he painstakingly milled away every one of my 12 answers. He didn't even have the decency to get the terminology right. Every upkeep it was him calmly telling me to 'discard a card, please. Please discard a card.'”

Sometimes, the offender will dare to hinder you at an event which actually matters. He'll ask you to draw into Day 2 of the Grand Prix. Then, after you decline and he knocks you out of the tournament, you'll be forced to pack up your things while he regurgitates 'It's not useful to draw in a two-day tournament' to his mom.

Usually, stories like these will be followed by a complaint about how “the whole time, I was forced to look at his awkward My First Moustache.” Then your eyes will glaze over in a far-off look, and although your lips will be moving, you'll be long gone. “It was like hell,” will come the distant whisper.

Okay, maybe I'm projecting a little. After all, I've experienced or witnessed each of these frustrating events firsthand. Still, most people can probably remember a similar occasion.

That said, if this is what you think about when I refer to “the scrub,” then I truly hope you listen to what I have to say.


The scrub is not a bad player. The scrub is not even a new player.

Actually, the scrub is not a player at all. It's an ideal.

David Sirlin, a game designer and analyst, writes about the scrub in his book, Playing to Win. Here is his definition.

A player who is handicapped by self-imposed rules that the game knows nothing about.

According to Sirlin, the scrub is a player who isn't playing to win. They might want to win, but that can't be a true goal, because they aren't doing everything in their ability to achieve it. In fact, they are harming their ability to improve by relying on an inaccurate framework.
“The scrub would take great issue with this statement for he usually believes that he is playing to win, but he is bound up by an intricate construct of fictitious rules that prevents him from ever truly competing. These made-up rules vary from game to game, of course, but their character remains constant.”

Like any player archetype, this can't fully define a real person. However, I find it helpful to think about the imposition of excess rules upon yourself in terms of “scrub-logic.”

In a fighting game, scrub-logic decries certain moves as “cheap” if they are effective without requiring a lot of “skill.” Of course, a scrub definition of skill is just as dubious, since it talks about only one facet of the game, like the ability to carry out a long combo.

In reality, games have a huge number of techniques and skills. Take draft, for example. Being able to send and receive signals is one aspect. Knowing how to effectively draft an archetype is another. Finally, playing the actual games requires numerous skills, from deciding mulligans to timing aggression to sideboarding. When I first got the hang of drafting, my skills lay mostly in the draft itself. I would frequently draft a deck, impress many players with its large number of Horobi's Whispers, and then lose to an “inferior” deck with a better player.

With so much to learn, labels and shortcuts can be helpful to figuring out what works and what doesn't. However, when misused, the same labels can handicap you. Today, with more tournament circuits than ever before, all boasting drool-inducing prize purses, this is not where you want to be. You'll need to remove these mental fetters in order to compete on even ground with the rest of the field.

Before we go on, I'd like to acknowledge that there are situations in which you might want to make up your own rules. When playing Mental Magic, I frequently make things up on the spot about graveyard information, hybrid or Phyrexian mana, and so on. With Magic always changing, so must the rules for a game that contains almost all of its cards.

Commander is another case. It's a format with relatively few tournaments, whose main benefit is that it provides an agreed-upon set of rules for you to enjoy games with anyone you meet. Since the goal is not really to win, but to enjoy a compelling game as you try, it's reasonable to handicap your deck's construction. By making a deck that consistently wins in the early turns with Ad Nauseam, you'll find the game soon over, and a dearth of opponents in its wake.

As you can see, these are largely casual scenarios. Hereafter, I will assume the goal is to be tournament-competitive.

That said, here are some common pitfalls that fall under the domain of scrub-logic.

Netdecks & Pet Decks

Perhaps the most common scrub cry in the Magic community is that of the netdeck. Players who complain about netdecks are quick to assert that their list is unique because of a couple substitutions. Even if these changes aren't nearly as synergistic and efficient as the standard choices, these players treat them like a badge of honor.

Well, here's news: you're not the people's hero. You're playing a card game.

I think that people who eschew netdecks understand that Magic is a game of many skills, but have unrealistic ideas about what that means for them. Sorry, but we aren't all Sam Black. We can't all build a deck from scratch; even if we all had the skill, we certainly don't all have the time. That doesn't mean we don't deserve to win, though. It's perfectly legal (and respectable) to take a finely-tuned deck to a tournament and challenge yourself to accomplish the results of which you know the list is capable.

Often, the decision to play a netdeck is an important moment in a player's growth. We can't excel at every facet of Magic immediately, so playing with a deck that is known to be competitive can allow you to focus your attentions on improving play skill. Finally, once you're more comfortable playing the deck, you're likely to have a better idea of what makes a deck work. You can use this knowledge to brew whatever deck you like. Just make sure you spend the time to test and tune it, instead of obstinately bringing it to every tournament.

Similarly, clinging to pet decks can compromise our ability to win. When we play with our pet decks, we aren't trying to win, we're trying to prove the deck is viable. Since playing and deckbuilding are totally different skills, it will be difficult to achieve both at once. This is why the best decks are built by teams of players and tested thoroughly before being taken to a high-level event.

If the difference between a tier-one deck and a tier-two deck is win percentage, then knowing the difference between the two requires hours and hours of grinding out games. Without a large sample size, your results mean nothing. Adding to the problem, effective playtesting is yet another skill. If your partner is the Shandalar AI, you're going to have a rough time at a real tournament; the players there probably won't jump on each opportunity to trade with your Ball Lightning.

I'm not saying you should never try to innovate, but understand the depth of work that's involved and be realistic with your expectations.

Deck Choice Limitations

In every format, players try to discern the “best.” In the Great Delver Panic of 2012, the deck surged in popularity as pros prophesized the doom of other archetypes. As its Top 8 percentage continued to remain in line with the percentage of Delver at the tournaments, players began to back off and play what they actually wanted. Caw Blade, however, is an example of a deck whose win percentage was so overwhelming, there was little debate that it was anything but the best deck.
 Snapcaster Mage
Store QTY Price  
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Wargear 4 $55.41
Magic MTG Card
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After determining the best deck in a format, people who play to win will start to sleeve up the necessary singles.

On the other hand, there's a group of players who will go to extreme lengths not to play the deck. As competitive players, they can hardly be argued to not want to win. However, they have a self-imposed code of honor that prevents them from playing the best deck in the format. This is similar, but not identical, to people who eschew netdecks. These players are perfectly willing to play a netdeck, just not the so-called “best” one.

Perhaps they find the deck “boring.” That might be understandable if you play Magic to have fun. However, if winning is how you derive the fun, then it would be better to play a deck that can win more often.

I can definitely sympathize with one's reasons for not wanting to play the known best deck in a format. For one, it has a huge target painted on its forehead. Your opponent will know exactly what you're trying to do, although if you're unfamiliar with the deck, you might not. You may think you'll win more if you play a deck that is more your style. This is possible, especially given that every deck you face will have cards in its sideboard specifically for you.

However, there are also reasons to give the deck a try if you haven't. Not only are you assured of a certain level of competition, but playing the best deck can teach you to play in a style with which you may not be familiar. I once asked Matt Costa what he attributed to his success, and he told me it was playing infinite Faeries mirrors. Although he'd always found a way to not play the deck when it was in Standard, deciding to play it afterwards helped him hone his sense of when to go aggressive.

Analyzing People, Not Plays

In our community, we tend to evaluate players as either good or bad, usually in relation to ourselves. We like to call them derogatory things like scrubs, fish, donkeys, or whatever animal is currently regarded as capable of playing poker (though not well). We could just as well call them Toonces, as in The Cat Who Could Draft, Just Not Very Well. The point is that we're assigning a definition that probably won't help us, but could certainly do harm. We're unlikely to play better if we think our opponent is “bad,” but we could very possibly tilt when the player stumbles upon a good move.

Players also make judgments about each other based on their style of dress and grooming, as we discussed earlier. As it turns out, the rules of Magic don't care what someone's moustache looks like. With the exception of Zvi Mowshowitz, whose Pro Tour makeover is a thing of legend, they don't care whether you shave your neck. As of this writing, elaborate rulings about facial hair remain exclusive to the World Beard and Moustache Championships™.

What difference does it make how your opponent looks when countering your play? Often, the answer is simply, “Well, it makes me angry.” I would like to make the bold assertion that anger is not actually helpful to playing Magic well. While I'm at it, I'll also take credit for every mention of tilt that's ever been made with regards to Magic.

It can be argued that certain visual cues and plays can help you determine a player's skill level. While that's certainly true, I find it much more likely to blind you to good plays. It's difficult to be surprised if you've never established an expectation. Additionally, once you find yourself playing with the assumption that your opponent won't notice certain plays, you're treading on very dangerous territory.

Finally, writing off a player as bad can prevent you from learning. Why would you complain that your opponent “only won because he made the wrong play,” when it turned out to be the winning play? When there is so much nuance involved in playing the game, we should strive to remove all the bias we can.

Blaming Luck

Blaming bad luck goes hand in hand with the article I wrote a few weeks ago on losing. However, luck is a huge part of Magic, and by focusing on what happened instead of what you could have done, you're handicapping yourself by removing options.

Opposing luck with skill is something we hear all the time, but it's actually scrub-thinking. Richard Garfield, on the Magic Cruise this year, asserted that “Luck vs. Skill” is a false dichotomy. Magic is a game with a lot of skill, but also a lot of luck. One of the skills, in fact, is reducing your vulnerability to variance.

Sometimes, you're so close to defeat that your only choice is to play to an out. As an example, say you're dead on your next turn, but your opponent is at 7. Assuming you have five lands in play, you might consider targeting her with the Lightning Bolt at end of turn, in the hopes that you untap and draw Lava Axe.

There is also a delicate balance between playing conservatively and hastening your victory. Giving your opponent extra turns is also a way to give them the chance to draw an answer for your superior board condition. Of course, if they're holding the answer, tapping out for Kessig Wolf Run might set you back two turns as you're forced to redevelop your board. Only you can determine which possibility you should play around. However, it's not helpful to blame bad luck when you could have won three turns ago and removed your opponent's ability to topdeck.


Ultimately, it is up to you to do what you find rewarding. I hope that if nothing else, this article helps you determine exactly what it is you want out of the vast Magic landscape.

Until next time, if your goal is to win, may you find yourself paired against a drafting cat.

Love and Battle,
Jackie Lee——

@JackieL33 on Twitter

Brian Kibler and I will be talking about Magic with the Frag Dolls on their stream tomorrow night, between 7-9pm PST (10pm-12am EST). Please join us at!

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