“Whoever said ‘It’s not whether you win or lose that counts,’ probably lost.” – Martina Navratilova, Czech and American tennis player, selected as the greatest female tennis player of 1965-2005 by the Tennis magazine
A few years ago I had what seems in retrospect like pretty serious anger issues in respect to losing at Magic. This is quite a natural thing for someone who is as invested as I am, but quickly it had become ridiculous. Sometimes after a bad tournament I would be in a foul mood for two or three next days. This would mean I’d be pissed off for about a half of a season in which I was struggling.
The way I got over this was because I started playing some other games, and I was similarly frustrated when I lost at them. The big difference was that I was definitely losing at these games because I wasn’t very good. After being demolished by Larry Martin at Bloodbowl over and over, after Martin Cairns was emptying my pockets at poker all summer (while drunk and alternating between telling me how bad I was and singing Christina Aguilera’s “I’m So Beautiful”), it became obvious to me there was a lot to be said for looking inward after losing.
So, I applied this to Magic, and ritualised the way I got in and out of games. The most important thing was never to whine about losses, at least not to my opponents. When I was on my own after the game, I was saying “Well, good luck in the rest” a little quicker than normal, then going outside till I had it together again. If you’re on the fence about the value of venting immediately versus looking stupid, search for Phil Hellmuth (a poker player) on YouTube or watch the video clip below.
A few weeks ago I asked a number of my friends who have been relatively successful at Magic about their win percentages. Bradley Barclay, Neil Rigby, and Stuart Wright were around 70%, Matt Light was around 65%, and I’m 63%. When you consider the sort of score you need to qualify for the Pro Tour, it’s easy to see why no one in the UK regularly gets on (other than Fabrizio Anteri).
I started thinking about this shortly after I moved to Nottingham, and about how it might be improved upon, and concluded that many of my losses could be accounted for in one of the following ways.
This is of course the obvious one: making stupid mistakes. I make less than most people, but I still make loads of them. I once tapped out of Black mana when I had my semi-final game won with a threshholded Dirty Wererat, and Eddie Ross incredulously burned it to death. Another time I ran an artifact creature into a pro-artifacts elf in Mirrodin block Sealed. Failed to cast an Viridan Shaman when I’d Mindslaver-ed my opponent, only to have him cast it the next turn and destroy my Goblin Charbelcher instead of my irrelevant Grim Monolith.
In the last PTQ I played, I scryed away a Thoughtseize and cast my Fleecemane Lion on turn two against my Mardu opponent who killed it, untapped and made a Goblin Rabblemaster when I could have just T’seized and made the Lion the following turn, as I had done a million times in testing. I also -3-ed an Elspeth, Sun’s Champion on the basis it killed a Sorin-ed Wingmate Roc token when it was actually a Sorin, Solemn Visitor token. All total howlers.
I try to play a little more slowly in play testing now. This way I am more sure of my plays in actual events, because I have a half second or so to double check before I do things like that. No one plays perfectly, though. All you can do is work hard and do your best, while always taking responsibility for your mistakes.
Poor specific knowledge
There is basically no reason why you shouldn’t know 65-75 of the cards in most people’s decks. Most people in PTQs play something stocked/conventional, with which you can simply keep up by checking MTGgoldfish.com every couple of days for ten minutes. I’m not great at this, though. I’ve no idea how I manage to find time to play Magic for 12-16 hours a week, but don’t manage to do this.
The fix for this is to do it on the bus home or before you got to bed, instead of teasing Rob Catton about how Nottingham is better than Leeds, or whatever other pointless thing I – or no doubt you – do that time. People, in my experience, are not very efficient with their time.
Poor match-up knowledge
It’s really easy to dismiss some decks out of hand because they look terrible. I don’t think for instance that I have ever actually built, played with or against, a deck with Martyr of Sands in testing. Until recently I don’t think I’ve ever really looked Scapeshift very seriously as a deck, and I think that’s ultimately because the person who first said to me it was a good deck was a bit irritating (that is clearly insanity, of course). Affinity is one which I build every Modern season, and we test against it, but it seems like people tend to just go through the motions with that deck. In tournaments, I often end up taking a little more damage here and there, because people are better with sequencing things and so on.
In a big format like Modern this is unavoidable to a degree, simply because there are so many decks that you would need to do an insane amount of work to actually play a lot with and against each of the decks. That said, even this Standard format – and in a city with amazing Magic resources – I’ve not played with or against the Jeskai Combo list.
The fix is not to dismiss decks out of hand, and to play a lot. If you’re short on time, as most of us are, this sort of thing is likely to chip away the likelihood of winning a given round, making qualifying for the Pro Tour really hard. You need to try and mitigate it by at least knowing what lists exist and what they’re doing in theory.
I’m a big advocate of playing the unsideboarded games first, getting a good working knowledge of how the match-ups go, and then building the sideboard in a way that makes sense based on the results of the pre-board games. The problem with this is that you can end up short on time to test the sideboard games if you’re not careful, and that’s pretty horrific. You play more games with sideboards than without, and having a good sideboard, combined with a strong knowledge of what you want to take in and take out in a given game, gives you such an edge. Because loads of people don’t actually get this done, you get easy wins – for example, in the Abzan mirror they kept in Sylvan Caryatids, or all four Lightning Strikes in Mardu against Abzan.
The solution for this is good time management. Work out how much time you can actually play. Make sure you’re down to a short list of one or two decks two weeks before the event, so you can play the sideboarded games with both in the first week, then perfect the sideboard for the deck you’re going to play in the final week. If you procrastinate forever, you end up not really knowing what you’re doing when you get there. Choose a deck, then choose the 75 cards that go in it.
Playing the wrong deck
Most Magic players have biases. I don’t really like Combo decks, unless they’re insanely consistent. I don’t like Midrange decks much, although I ultimately did play loads of Midrange this year. I thought it was a correct move, and I’ve been rewarded for it. For me, Control decks at the moment just don’t have what it takes to compete with the quality of the gold creatures Midrange decks have access to.
In the past, loads of times I have *definitely* played Beatdown when I should have played Control, and the opposite – a number of times too. I didn’t sleeve up Affinity at all during Mirrodin block PTQs, which in retrospect seems like absurd. The other good decks were about casting Arc-Slogger and Tooth and Nail. I could probably do broaden my horizons in respect to Modern deck selection, too.
Make sure you’re playing both sides of the match-ups in testing, so that you will have some basic knowledge about most of decks in a format. This way if it turns out that you really should be playing something else, you have some knowledge to base a switch on. If you don’t have this, you’re trading in being on the right deck for an increase in all of the other problems mentioned in this article, and it’s probably not worth it.
Awkward draws/bad curve
This is probably the most complicated and the least talked point I’m discussing today, so it’s going to be a bit longer.
I played Abzan Aggro in a PPTQ the weekend before last, and in several games I drew 3 pain lands, and 2-3 of either Thoughtseize or Abzan Charm, and one of these times I got beaten to death by a single Satyr Wayfinder. When that wasn’t happening I was failing to do things on curve, because all my lands came into play tapped. That deck also had loads of three mana casting cost spells, and not too many lands, so it can rarely cast two in one turn. That was the worst I’ve done in a Standard tournament in about 18 months.
Cards with inherently variable value like Sidisi, Brood Tyrant, Satyr Wayfinder, and Delver of Secrets are problematic, because while they’re likely to hit (I think when we asked Mark Hollowell – who seems to be our maths guy at the moment – the likelihood of the first two to hit was 85% and 87% to hit), they do miss the rest of the time. When you think about a percentage as a single instance 85% sounds a lot like a sure thing. When you consider that you’re going to play 8 rounds of Swiss plus 3 rounds of Top 8, when many rounds will go to game three, and that you probably trigger these spells at least twice a game on average, you’re talking about 58 triggers and 11 misses. Sometimes missing will not matter. Other times it will flatline your PTQ.
The other sorts of cards are the “bad” ones – e.g. ones that on their own are quite weak, but become very good because of the synergies they have in a deck. Taigam’s Scheming in Sultai Limited decks, and Ornithopter in Affinity are good examples. These cards are great when they’re helping you cast your turn 4 Dead Drop or killing people on turn 4 with two Cranial Plating and a bunch of cheap robots. (Although, this is still just a two-for-two, and you can probably create a similar situation by simply trading off creatures, casting your Dead Drop a bit later to kill a 4cc man and a 5cc man instead of a bear and morph, but whatever).
Mentioned decks are designed to do that, so they generally work out quite nicely. But there are also plenty of times (by which I mean a number that is well within the remit of statistical likelihood, and very predictable over the course of 11 rounds of a Magic tournament), when they’re a 0/2 with flying facing down Kitchen Finks and Restoration Angel or Snapcaster Mage, which just got back Lightning Bolt, blocked your other attacker and basically just made you look stupid.
The solution is to play cards and decks with a pretty predictable power level, unless the variable cards offer *insane* power. In that case it’s fine to play them, because you’re getting really good rewards for the risk you’re taking. But make no mistake: you’re taking a risk. Probability is *not* certainty. 85% is rolling 1-17 on a d20 dice and people roll 18+ all the time.
I may be biased a bit, since my personal bar for what is acceptable is a little higher than usual. However, at the same time I’ve had unprecedented success (for me) in recent times playing super solid cards. At the moment I’m very comfortable cluttering up boards with random Planeswalkers and big dorks.
Flood/screw & variance/luck
Firstly, those last two are different things. From Wikipedia (because, as people who know me will attest to, I have a great deal of respect for maths, but very little actual aptitude for it – despite having a masters course in statistics…):
Luck is what you get from a four-leaf clover.
People often use the two interchangeably, and it makes it sound as if they think any time things don’t go their way, it’s statistically anomalous. So for instance, Satyr Wayfinder missing, which it’s going to do about 15% of the time, gets described as “variance”. It might be true in the broadest sense possible: his not working out is part of the range of things that can happen…
…this grinds my gears.
Anyway, I think a lot of things related to flood and screw lands come down to a proper deck selection and strategic mulligans. If you keep a hand of 5 lands and 2 spells, there is a strong chance you’ll end up with 9 lands and 6 spells by turn 6 in many decks. Loads of people seem to think this is “unlucky/variance/voodoo”. The thing is you’re playing quite a lot of rounds, and it’s not like these things are actually that unlikely anyway! They’re a natural part of the fabric of reality. They’re not unicorns.
Don’t want to get mana screwed/flooded? Play a reasonable number of lands and spells and mulligan in a way that makes sense… And it will still happen reasonably often. You’ll need to accept that, because ultimately, if you can’t handle this, maybe Magic isn’t the game for you.
I’ve done what I could to change the things I thought made me lose, although it’s always a work in progress. In the last six months I’ve missed a bunch of win-and-ins, cash the Dark Sphere MSI 10k event, Top 8-ed two PTQs, ninth-placed another, missed 2-3 win-and-ins, won a bunch of random Drafts, to make my overall win percentage for the period of 68%. Making a bit of progress is awesome, although obviously I still haven’t won any since the point when I re-evaluated all I wrote about above.
Oh, I’ve also played 135 PTQs now, which to my knowledge is more than anyone else in the country – let me know if you know someone with more, or I’m going to count myself as the “winner” of that particular pointless competition.
Community Question: How many PTQs and GPs have you been to so far? How many more do you hope to attend in 2015?
All the best,