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Many complex decisions in trading cards games seem amenable to a three stage model.

  1. The player must see as many potential lines of play as they can.
  2. For each potential line of play they see, the player must deduce the resulting potential game state (often several, depending on possible interaction from the opponent).
  3. The player must recognize which resulting potential game state is best for them.

My question is how to improve at #2 when there are many lines of play, the resulting potential game states involve many details, or some combination thereof. This is the aspect of decision making I find to be the biggest bottleneck as I otherwise get better at a game through analysis and practice. The problem is not that it's hard to mentally simulate any single potential line of play, but that capacity to keep several resulting potential game states in mind while still simulating other potential lines of play is limited.

For example, in Magic the Gathering, I may be considering several blocking formations, but also have the ability to flicker one of my potential blockers either before or after blocking, perhaps also triggering one of several ETB abilities which alter blocking decisions, and for each outcome, I would have to mentally track the resulting board state and life totals. And that's a situation with only one relevant card in hand. I could take notes to help, but would need to figure out a system to do so efficiently. Sometimes the logic of situations allows many potential lines of play to be ruled out, but on other occasions, the tracking load feels like a bottleneck to making better plays.

It would be easy to shortcut #2 in software; just program a client to fork a game state into as many "sandbox" windows as desired, and during a game, execute each noticed potential line of play in a window, then pick the best resulting potential game state depicted among the windows. However, this doesn't help much in paper games. Are there any specific memory or notetaking techniques that trading card game players deploy to overcome difficulties in this aspect of decision making?

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There's several things you can do to help memory and evaluation:

In the broadest cases, write things down. In Magic the Gathering, spells like Thoughtseize take a little longer at high level play, less because they don't know what card they want to pick, but because the player is writing down the cards they see in their opponent's hand. Having it written down makes it easier to manage without needing to remember that information, and helps with other points, it's easier to evaluate possibilities when there's less hidden information.

Know your deck. A lot of this comes down to knowing the cards you're playing and how they interact. You can also get a feel for what your opponent's deck is trying to do and how it runs through play. Knowing what is and isn't going to be valuable to your game plan, or in stopping your opponent's plans, simplifies some of the evaluations.

Don't try to remember everything. In your blocking example, you don't need to evaluate every possibility at all times, a lot can be rejected out of hand (don't risk the small creature who is vital to your strategy if you don't have to) others can be evaluated and discarded. You don't need to keep every possible option in mind at all times.

And accept that you will make mistakes, TCGs are games of imperfect information, but even if they weren't you're human and you won't always see or recognise the best options. Mistakes and misplays happen, they help players get better at the game when you learn from them.

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First, particularly when you have to make such decisions many times over the course of a tournament, physical fitness is important, and so is eating and drinking the right thing before playing.

Second, this is something you can train. Play chess, which demands this kind of decision making constantly. (But keep in mind some people are innately better at this than others.)

Third, if you keep playing the same decks against a few other similar decks, you will end up making similar decisions which means you can rely on patterns you have observed and not have to think about everything from scratch.

If you're looking for mnemonics or mental shortcuts that help, there aren't any that work reliably, and they tend to get it wrong and blow up at the worst times.

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    I was expecting a Bridge reference rather than a Chess one; the advantage being that Bridge, like TCG, is a game of incomplete information while Chess is not. Notwithstanding that reference, and despite someone's early dislike of this answer: this is the correct answer. Practice and study, which will likely take years, are the remedy. Apr 14, 2023 at 0:07
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One big thing to develop is a set of heuristics. A heuristic is basically any simplification that will tend to steer you in the right direction. Some examples of heuristics for a TCG like Magic might be:

  • About 1/3 of your deck should be lands.

  • Drawing a card is worth 2 life.

  • One mana should deal about 1.5 damage.

Are the heuristics correct? Probably not, because I just made them up, but even if you could find the right numbers to put in there it ignores a whole lot of context. Your deck might need more lands if you're running WUBRG compared to mono-green, and there's no point paying your last two life points to draw a card if it's going to lose you the game. However, you can form your own heuristics and also build on their complexity as you gain experience. For example, the first heuristic could evolve into something like "Your deck should be 1/3 lands, plus 2 lands for every additional color, minus one land for every non-land mana ramp card".

The same thing can apply in combat - if you can assign some kind of basic value to each card on the field, and also to your life total, you can quickly identify whether it's "worth" chump blocking or trading creatures compared to letting the damage go through.

It's similar to how chess pieces have a standard point value that represents how good a particular trade is (pawn = 1, knight/bishop = 3, etc) but good chess players will learn to adjust those values to account for, e.g. where the piece is on the board.

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  • Your numbers aren't that far off, though usually a card for one life is what people expect to pay, there are cards that occasionally see use and cost 2.
    – Andrew
    Apr 17, 2023 at 17:20
  • I feel like this answer is more geared toward improving at #3 than improving at #2. Still valuable info of course. As for drawing a card being worth 1 life, I'm pretty sure Necropotence is Banned/Restricted for instantiating this tradeoff.
    – user10478
    Apr 20, 2023 at 20:46

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