Intangible Virtues – Spread the Sickness with Grant Hislop

UB Mystical Teachings – A Pauper Video Article by Grant Hislop


I played in a Trial for GP Manchester a couple of weeks ago. I can’t go to Manchester, but I found myself on the threshold for an additional bye for next season. I needed to win three rounds to get to this stage, without having to mess around and go to FNM or any other tournaments that would require me to shell out for travel etc. Needless to say, while I wasn’t particularly bothered about the latter parts of the tournament, there was a lot riding on it for me. The difference between one and two byes cannot be overstated.

Quite a few of the Edinburgh guys were planning on going, both to the GP Trial and to the Grand Prix itself, so it wasn’t too difficult to fill my car, even if for some reason, the Trial was standard- unlike the GP itself which will be Sealed deck. It seems to me that people in Scotland are far more interested in Limited formats than constructed. I’d hate to perpetuate stereotypes, but I have a theory that Scots don’t like having to spend money on the cards required for constructed…

My friend Mark and I generally find ourselves having to furnish the rest of the city with decks for whatever is the constructed format de jour. This wasn’t to be an exception. My car ended up being myself, Mark Greene, Bruno Panara and Tom Robinson. We were expecting Adrian Fraser, but he cancelled on the morning with a misspelled text declaring that he was drunk. I believed him.

What we played, and how we did is pretty irrelevant, but the reason that I’m boring you with the story of what happened at such a nothing tournament is due to a conversation that happened before we left.

Tom’s recently moved up to Edinburgh, from Nottingham, and while I knew him a bit from the PTQ circuit, I’ve really got to know him pretty well over the past few months since he’s arrived. Tom isn’t really planning on going to Manchester either, but was quite happy to come along, in his words ‘just to play some cards’. Mark and I had a bunch of extra cards on us, and Tom was happy enough to just make a deck out of whatever we had on us. We ended up cobbling together a Grixis Heartless Summoning deck for him to play, with the infinite mana combo of Priest of Urabrask and Havengul Lich, fuelling infinite Perilous Myr recursion.

We put the deck together on site, with about 20 minutes spare before round one started. It was obvious that Tom wasn’t taking this tournament particularly seriously, and didn’t really have any expectations. I, on the other hand, had quite a bit on the line, as I really needed to get to the three win mark as quickly as possible. Both of us weren’t particularly bothered about making Top 8, or actually winning the tournament, but obviously I was taking things a bit more seriously.

It’s quite unusual for me to not actually want to win a tournament that I’m playing in, but for these types of event, it’s far more beneficial for the win to go to someone who’s actually going to the tournament that it’s feeding. Had I made Top 8, I’d probably have dropped, depending on how tired I was, or played until I lost, or conceded the finals, assuming that my finals opponent was actually going to the tournament in question.

I’m obviously not a new player. I’ve been playing competitively for 3 years, have played on the Pro Tour once, made Day 2 at Grand Prix, Top 8’d several PTQ’s and played in multiple National championships. I’m clearly not the best player in the world; but, on a good day, I’d like to believe that I’m far better than average. I wasn’t just there to play some cards. I had a goal. The structure of low-level tournament Magic being what it is, so focused on first place, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that people are there for different reasons, and have different reasons for attending a tournament, and that sometimes these reasons are the opposite of your own.

When I walk into a tournament, I expect to at least make Top 8. Consequently, if I don’t, I’m going to be going home disappointed. I generally think that I have a realistic shot at winning just about any tournament that I’m playing in, so long as I don’t get hurt too badly by the intangible factors that influence every tournament. The thing is, there are probably 10-12 people that have walked into the same tournament hall thinking exactly the same thing.

Bruno’s very vocal about this. He’s been on a bit of a tear in the Scottish scene recently, having qualified for the last two Pro Tours and winning pretty much every GP Trial he plays in. He has every right to be confident. Last time we got a bus to a GP Trial for Madrid, we built a UW Delver deck for him to play on the way there. We were talking about sideboarding strategy for the deck, and the circumstances under which we’d side out Invisible Stalkers and the equipment package etc. We had a break in the conversation, and he looked at me and said ‘You know, the only thing that might stop me winning this tournament is that I’m having to play these ugly M11 Mana Leaks’. The ugly Mana Leaks weren’t enough to stop him, and he ended up taking down the tournament. To Bruno, anything less than first place is a failure.

He beats himself up over mistakes in ‘friendly’ drafts, and during testing, but not to the extent that it will have a negative impact on the game. He recovers from mistakes far better than most, which separates him from ‘good players’, which is to say he acknowledges his mistake, and tries to recover the position he may have lost by making the mistake without tilting, and making it worse for himself. When Bruno plays Magic, he expects to win. When I play Magic, I hope the cards come together, and I can scrape my way to victory.

What about you?

When you play in a tournament, do you think that you’ll win?

Do you think that you’ll Top 8?

Do you expect that you’ll 0-2 drop and be back on the road by lunchtime?

Are your expectations relative to both your skill level and what you’re looking to get out of both the tournament you’re at, and the game in general?

When you’re in a tournament, how many players are there that you think are better than you?

Is it less than 7?

If you’re in a limited tournament, can you beat those players when you’re both operating optimally?

If your deck’s better than theirs?

If theirs is better than yours?

If you misplay, can you recover without tilting?

If it’s a constructed tournament, are you confident that you’ll beat your good matchups?

What about your bad ones?

Do you at least have a plan for the bad ones?

There are plenty of reasons to be confident in your play, and the areas that you’re weak in, if you take the time to correct any deficiencies. Assuming a reasonable basic skill level, average intelligence, and a desire to improve, there’s very little that can’t be taught, and quickly. If you’re not familiar with the rules, play on MODO, and you’ll learn them quick-smart. If you’re not good at limited, play more, in various formats, and talk about picks and plays that came up.

Surround yourself with people that are better than you, and who are willing to talk to you. There’s no faster way to get better than to play with people who’re better than you. It’s how I did it, and how pretty much everyone else did as well. It’s a myth to think that there are shortcuts available to getting better at the game, or developing better in-game skills. It takes a lot of time, effort and games to get better, and there’s only so much that the theory can teach you before you have to start getting real-life experience. There’s no substitute for actually playing games of Magic.

When I play constructed, sometimes I feel like I can’t lose. Unsurprisingly, this is when I’ve tested the hell out of a format, or even just a deck. When I qualified for Nationals a couple of years ago, I was playing a UG Polymorph deck that was trying to cheat an Iona, Shield of Emeria into play sometime around turn 3. My testing partner at the time was Andy Morrison, and we’d spent probably around 40-50 hours sitting in the pub playing the deck against every deck that was popular in the format at the time. We knew exactly what we were going to be doing with the deck in every matchup that we could reasonably expect to face, we knew what was our dream matchup, what was our worst one, and what we were doing to rectify our bad matchups. Andy and I finished that tournament in 3rd and 1st place respectively, and both qualified for Nationals as a result.

This obviously wasn’t coincidence. We must have been the best prepared people in the room for that particular tournament, and it showed. Neither of us ever felt particularly challenged throughout the day. We both beat our worst matchup (Naya with Cunning Sparkmage + Basilisk Collar) on multiple occasions throughout the day, because we knew what we were doing, while our opponents didn’t. We were obviously very interested in how the other was doing as the day progressed, and I watched him win a game against a Jund deck where he looked so far behind that I couldn’t conceive of a string of top-decks that would keep him in the game, but everything fell perfectly, and he pulled out a win, and a qualification out of seemingly inevitable defeat because he knew what his plan was in that situation, how to play to his outs, and the cards fell the way they needed to. Test your decks guys, it works.

Andy’s moved to Shetland now, and the last time I saw him was en route to Worlds late last year. I’ve not been playing as much constructed as I was when he was around, and it shows. When I play Standard now, I don’t really know what I’m doing. Like, I’ll know the cards in my deck, and how they’re supposed to interact with one-another, but I don’t know what to do to get back into games when I fall behind. Consequently, I end up flipping between decks a lot during a season.

During the most recent Modern season, I played UWR Delver, Cawblade and Doran in the 3 PTQ’s that I got to play in. Outside of the Doran deck, I didn’t really get what was going on. I understood basically what I was trying to accomplish, but I didn’t really know what the board would look like when I won the game, so ended up getting disillusioned with each of the decks, and putting them aside. One PTQ with a couple of hours of testing beforehand is not enough to be sufficiently familiar with a deck to realistically expect to win a tournament. I’m hoping the fact that I’m sufficiently MODO wealthy to test Standard online will rectify this for the coming season.

It could be all too easy to equate confidence in ones play entirely to familiarity with a format, but it’s sadly not that simple. Sometimes this can be the case, and certainly works wonders in the small pond that is British Magic, where being able to shuffle 60 cards properly, and without drooling on them can put you at considerable advantage compared to at least half of the field. Sometimes it’s possible to just go on a run, whether it’s for good or ill. Who of us can’t say that there’s been a format that they ‘just don’t get’. It can obviously be quite difficult to avoid this becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, but there’s seldom anything that productive practice can’t fix. I didn’t ‘get’ Rise of the Eldrazi draft at all, and consequently didn’t draft it much after the first few weeks of its life. Is it any coincidence that if I pick it up at the tail end of its life, I’ll be losing to people who’ve been playing throughout the life-cycle? I think not.

There are obviously some formats that some players will have an Affinity for, and win seemingly effortlessly, and others where the same players will seem unable to buy a win. It’s important to realistically look at these results, and whether they’re sustainable, or if it’s been a series of coincidences, be they for good or ill, have precipitated the recent run of form, and whether there’s anything that the player, as an individual can do to sustain or rectify this. Basically, don’t get put off if you seem to keep losing, and you’re genuinely working at improving your game. Magic is, at its core, a game with an element of chance to it, and as such, there are many intangible variables that could be the cause of a perceived ‘lack of form’.

A lot of players that I’ve seen seem to have an unbelievably defeatist attitude when they play against me. I don’t know quite where I’ve cultivated the reputation that I’m good at this game, as throughout my tenure playing and writing, I’ve made it abundantly clear that I don’t know what I’m doing half the time (being generous), but some people seem to think that I’m good at the game. I’m obviously not going to discourage them from thinking this, but really, I’m nothing special.

But think about it.

If you’re playing against someone who you perceive to be better than you, what have you actually got to lose? When I played in Pro Tour Paris, my round one opponent was Reid Duke. You might think I’d have been intimidated to play a ‘big name’ in my first match on the Pro Tour, but really, I didn’t have anything to lose. I’d probably lose, but if I won, I’d have beaten a ‘big name’, and if I lose, I’d certainly have learned something from watching a top player playing me. You can easily translate this down the ladder. Perhaps there’s someone at your FNM who wins almost every week, or your friend who keeps winning when you play on the kitchen table. Really, what have you got to lose? It’s literally all up-side playing someone who’s better than you, and it should be treated as an opportunity rather than sitting down resigned to taking a loss.

Why should you be intimidated by this player?

Why do you always fall for his bluffs, or why do you always play around the Mana Leak that you’re ‘sure’ he has to have?

Pros keep sketchy hands all the time, I know I do, and obviously they don’t have the luxury of being able to sculpt the perfect opening 7 every time. They are, at their core, playing the same game as you, and using the same cards as you, so why would you give them the added bonus of not even considering that they might be bluffing. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t even consider the bluff.

In the end, you need to be realistic in your expectations. I’m obviously not going to win a Pro Tour in the near future, and  I probably never will. I don’t think it’s unrealistic to expect that I’ll play on the Pro Tour again, but in order to do so, I’ll need to make a concerted effort to get back to the level that I was playing at when I qualified in the first place. Being able to objectively look at yourself as a player, and identifying your own strengths and weaknesses is a skill that many  players need to work on, as sometimes it’s just too easy to say ‘Fuck it, I got mana screwed’, and not give any consideration to any of the other factors that may have contributed to you losing the game/match/tournament/blue envelope, and it’s even more difficult to look at this in a positive way. Until you can really honestly look at yourself as a player, you’re going to be limiting the amount of success that you could be having.

I managed to piece together the 3 wins that I needed to secure my second bye, though I left it a lot closer than I’d hoped to, having played a double-header of my worst matchup in rounds 3 + 4, leaving me needing to win my last round, so there’s at least a happy ending to my somewhat rambling tale.

May you always have the pretty Mana Leaks

Stay Classy mtgUK



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