“Functional Fixedness” | The Irish Duelist

“Functional Fixedness”


Allen Pennington, a well-known Gadget duelist from the US, has published an interesting article over at The Game Academy. In this article he talks about the term 'functional fixedness', which can be the difference between an average player and a good player.

This was a classic matchup between Zombie and Lightsworn, a matchup I would consider to be even. Sometimes one player draws better that the other, but more often than not someone gets outplayed.

This was one of those cases.

The Zombie player had a great setup with his more control-oriented build. He had a Stardust Dragon, a Colossal Fighter, and a set Torrential Tribute. He was winning with 6300 lifepoints to his opponent’s 4400 and appeared to have established a good control of the game (the lightsworn player didn’t even have any Necro Gardnas in the grave). But this didn’t last for long. It was now the lightsworn player’s turn, and he did the only thing he could. He summoned normal Lumina, Lightsworn Summoner, discarded Wulf, Lightsworn Beast to bring it back, and put a card on the top of his deck to bring back Plaguespreader Zombie. The zombie player had no response, and he synchro’d for a Mist Wurm. He targeted all three of the Zombie player’s cards with Mist Wurm’s effect, prompting the Zombie player to activate Torrential Tribute, wiping the field.

It was topdeck mode for both players. The zombie player topdecked a Caius the Shadow Monarch (to go with his dead creature swap already in hand) and passed. The lightsworn player drew a Garoth, Lightsworn Warrior (his only card in hand), summoned it, attacked for 1850, and passed the turn. The zombie player ripped yet another Caius. Frustrated, he showed his hand to a spectator and said, “I only run two of those.” The lightsworn player drew a Necro Gardna, set it, hit for 1850 and passed. Finally, the Zombie player got a Spirit Reaper, something useful. He set it passed.

Next turn it was all over. The lightsworn player drew a Celestia, Lightsworn Angel, tributing Garoth to destroy Spirit Reaper, flipped Necro Gardna, and attacked for game. The zombie player complained about his opponent’s lucky draws. Had you watched this game, you might have thought that the Zombie player did all he could. But you would be wrong. Like the poor zombie player, you made the mistake of functional fixedness, a phenomenon that often prevents players from recognizing their in-game mistakes.

Specifically, go back to this play “prompting the Zombie player to activate Torrential Tribute, wiping the field.” What else could he have done? He could’ve let the Mist Wurm bounce the Torrential Tribute to his hand, and not wiped the field. However, this also would not have been a good play because if the lighsworn player did not summon another monster, he still would have lost. So what else could have done been done? Still can’t figure it out? I’ll give you a clue: it involves Stardust Dragon.

So maybe you figured it out. The Zombie player could have activated Torrential Tribute and then tributed Stardust Dragon to negate the Torrential Tribute, allowing Stardust Dragon to come back in the end phase (effectively saving his Stardust Dragon from its death). This would make any monster a viable topdeck (you could just Creature Swap it for the Mist Wurm), and in this case would’ve made those dead Monarchs live. He could tribute Stardust for Caius, remove Mist Wurm, attack for 2400, then next turn tribute for Caius again and attack for game.

Obviously, the zombie player could not have been psychic and predict that he was going to draw two Caius the Shadow Monarchs in a row, but that’s irrelevant. The fact is that tributing Stardust to negate Torrential Tribute would’ve given him much better odds to win the game. Any removal card, any monster, and Brain Control would’ve either won the game outright or turned it around in his favor. If it was that simple, why did both players and a group of spectators all not notice this costly misplay?

Remember when Stardust Dragon first came out it you realized why it was so good? It could negate many of your opponent’s important removal cards. Did you think it was good because you could use its effect in conjunction with Torrential Tribute to dodge a Mist Wurm bounce? Probably not. This is a perfect example of a psychological occurrence called functional fixedness: a cognitive bias that limits a person to using an object only in the way it is traditionally used. Clearly, the best way to use Stardust Dragon in this game was not “traditional” by any means.

Overcoming functional fixedness is one of the many ways that good players become great players. They make the best play instead of the most obvious play.

Probably the most classic example of how the first pro players overcame functional fixedness was the play that’s now known as the “pro storm”. For many years, everyone played Heavy Storm the same way Harpie’s Feather Duster was played; whenever you wanted to clear your opponent’s on-field spells/traps, you plop down a Heavy Storm and clear them. A smart player would never set more than one spell/trap compared to his opponent (so if I had one set spell/trap it would be ok for you to set two, but not three). Eventually, clever players were able to figure out that by setting Heavy Storm, you could trick your opponent into letting you get a 2-for-1. Word of the pro storm soon spread, and some players no longer had an issue of functional fixedness regarding Heavy Storm (a smart player would now avoid setting more spells/traps than his opponent unless one of them was chainable).

Usually functional fixedness is an issue with newer players picking up a new deck. At first, they only learn the most common plays and can’t see the less obvious ones. However, this can become a problem with more experienced players as well. They go into an auto-pilot mode after they are confident that they know all of the ins and outs of a deck. When you’re in auto-pilot mode you’re less likely to consider all of your plays; you just do the first thing that comes to mind.

I’ve played against a lot of pro players throughout the years, and have tried to see what they all have in common. One of the major things is that they all play much slower than the average player. This might seem a bit shady, and I would argue that a handful are doing it to stall for time. However, I think the majority are doing it because they are trying to think of every possible play, consider them all, and then do whatever they feel is optimal.

There’s two parts to making a good play and not letting functional fixedness get the best of you. The first part is thinking about your plays, but the second is actually reading your cards, something that might seem obvious. There’s no way that you could’ve made the Stardust Dragon play if you hadn’t known that it could negate the effects of your own cards. The more card interactions you understand, the more likely you are to make the correct play in a given situation.

Another example of functional fixedness involves synchros once again. Black Rose Dragon is considered to be an extra deck staple. If your opponent heavily commits to the field, you can summon it to blow up everything. It’s very useful. However, many players have never actually read the card’s text. If they had, they would realize that it actually has another effect. By removing a plant monster in your grave, you can force one of your opponent’s monsters to attack position and bash it for 2400. This might sound like a situation that would rarely come up, but if you’re playing Mystic Tomato, it might happen more often than you might think. I know I’ve caught plenty of opponents off guard by activating Black Rose Dragon’s second effect. It often invokes surprised comments from my opponents, “Wait, it has another effect?”

There are nearly infinite examples of situations where making unorthodox plays can win games. Having your Lightsworn monsters suicide into your opponent’s bigger monsters can prevent you from decking out with your Lightsworn monsters’ effects. The concept of having your monsters kill themselves is a play that’s obvious to some but often escapes the less experienced players who have a naive mindset of “Why would I ever want my monsters to kill themselves?” Another situation where killing your own monsters can be beneficial is to accelerate into a Dark Armed Dragon. By having Mystic Tomato suicide into your opponent’s monster and searching another copy of itself (and keep repeating the process) you can go to having zero darks in your graveyard to having three.

The best thing you can do if you want to learn new plays and become better in general is to watch others play. Different people make different plays. You might watch someone else play and reach an epiphany. You’ll see a really good play and be able to add it to your bag of tricks for future games.