At Grand Prix Cleveland, after a discussion about what a friend of mine could do to improve his game, the subject of what different holes different other
players had in their game came up. I started rattling off different players, both pros and friends, and I had fun rattling off a bunch of great responses.
(Names redacted as that seems like the polite thing to do.)
Name 1: “Too content to play the low variance deck.”
Name 2: “Assumes others are less flawed than they are and trusts their input too much.”
Name 3: “Oh boy, where do I start?”
And then the real kicker came.
As always, when presented with an interesting question, I hit the tank. What were the places that I consistently failed at? What were the things I
consistently stated I need to work on and put effort into finding other people who could help?
I eventually came to a list of three things.
Of course, the more I talked about it, the more I realized that each of these things had a flip side, where people I knew were too far to the other side to
Flaw 1: Failure to Judge Potential
This was one of my biggest flaws in my early years on the Pro Tour, and honestly, to this day, I’m still biased towards the same side I was before to a
At Pro Tour Austin, in post-Zendikar Extended, I didn’t put significant effort into Dark Depths combo or Thopter Foundry combo because I was not impressed
with the consistency or resiliency of my original lists. I’m unsure if Dark Depths or Thopter Foundry combo were the best decks at that event, but it turns
out they were good individually, and together they were actually just the best deck in the format.
At Pro Tour San Diego, in Shards of Alara-Zendikar Standard, I dismissed Jund because I wasn’t happy with the manabase. Not only was it the best deck for
that event, I roomed with the person who finished second at that Pro Tour and had their list. I opted to play Vampires instead. Turns out Raging Ravine,
which I had dismissed as slow and clunky, was actually insane and let the deck play enough lands to curve out. It also prevented it from flooding out.
I’m pretty good at pegging specific types of cards, but when looking at a non-linear deck on paper, I’m often way too harsh on it. As a result, I often
throw away decks that look, for lack of a better term, awkward but are perfectly positioned for a metagame or format, in general.
Fix 1: Rely on Results
At Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir, I laughed at Steve Rubin’s list at first. No Bile Blight? How are you ever not just dying to Mantis Rider or Goblin
Rabblemaster? Is this really going to be able to fight through Dig Through Time control? Isn’t this just an inbred list for mirrors?
Except this time I ended up seeing the deck was good, and (insert absolutely not humble brags).
I sat down and challenged Steve. I thought he would easily lose to all of these things, and he beat them all.
While I might have a lot of misses on judging things in a vacuum, I am real good at seeing the patterns in empirical data. And honestly, I would
bet the vast majority of people are the same way.
Sometimes you are just so knowledgeable about a format that you already know how new or different cards will slot into matchups. Good for you when that
happens, but 90% of the time you got there by trying a bunch of things out first and seeing patterns.
Pitfall 1: Trying Too Hard
When labeling issues other pros had, this was a common one. I also had a recent discussion about why some Limited players fail at Constructed, and this was
also my reason that occurs.
Ever watch someone play perfectly and you wonder how they lose, but at the end of the event they have some average finish like 5-3? And they are also
When playing Constructed, changing decks is an option afforded to you, not an admission of defeat.
Sometimes, people lock in on a certain deck for some reason and it becomes their baby. Or it’s just their type of thing. Or they think it leverages skill.
Or really any reason. And instead of looking at other options as well, they try to solve all the other problems they run into without constantly
questioning the base premise of “Is this deck actually leveraging what is good against what I expect to play?”
Sometimes you find an answer against everything, but often you don’t. Or you think you are okay with just being a bit ahead. And you keep shifting around
your deck, when in reality, everything has changed from underneath you, and your 55% against the field is actually worse than just playing something you
didn’t want to and leveraging the metagame.
It’s the old broken car issue. When the engine catches on fire, sometimes it’s better to just buy a new one.
Flaw 2: Self Interest/Failure to Direct Others
I’m sure everyone is shocked and awed at this one given some of my previous statements, but I’m not referring to my general match philosophy based on Magic
matches being zero sum.
This has to do with teams and playtesting.
Very often, team testing gets frantic as events approach. People don’t know what they want to do and start jumping frantically from ship to ship. Decisions
aren’t focused, and it just descends into actual chaos.
I rarely am the person scrambling in these scenarios, but I’m also rarely the person helping. My reaction in these scenarios is often just to say “screw
everyone else,” hole up, and basically test for myself for the last 24-48 hours. This helps me more than trying to wade through the mayhem would, but it
definitely detracts from the group as a whole as I let the mayhem continue. I get in some important matches, but I lose outside perspective, the ability to
multi-queue matches, and just generally don’t help provide to a good atmosphere moving forward.
If I actually involved myself in these situations, odds are things would be better for everyone involved.
Fix 2: Small Pushes
Getting ten people to do something is hard, but getting one person to do something they want that also benefits you? That’s easy.
Rather than trying to herd cats and get a full group of people together all at once, I’ve found more success in these scenarios with starting cascading
events. Find one person, get them going in a direction, and they find another person to work with. Then repeat, get the group moving in the right
direction, and pull the group together after all of the low level work has been done to discuss.
Pitfall 2: Making Others Issues Your Own
This is the one I’ve been burned on before, and it’s probably part of why I’m biased towards just taking care of myself in the end.
I’ve had terrible experiences trying to parse all the noise, where I cease to be able to focus and become part of the problem or mayhem. I’ve also had
issues where people attach to my ideas when they clearly shouldn’t because I just sound more collected than everyone else. They fall into a follower role
where they just defer all opinions without adding and end up running into pitfalls that they were not properly prepared to avoid. I did this at Pro Tour
Journey into Nyx while playing Conley Woods’ Abzan Constellation deck, but the classic example in my mind is a player who audibled to Brian Demars’ Esper
Control deck at Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze and drew multiple mirrors because they weren’t experienced enough to make the relevant decisions in time. They
admitted after it was a mistake, but they trusted in my decision without making one for themselves.
Alternatively, there is the really bad personal problems category. Not even going to touch this one, just going to say stay far away if it isn’t
immediately fixable by being blunt.
Regardless of the cause, it’s easy to get swept into the madness. Sometimes you really do have to accept there is nothing you can do with the time you have
to solve the situation, cut your losses, and move on.
Flaw 3: Failure to Iterate Options
This applies to both Constructed and Limited in slightly different ways.
I’m really good at coming up with an initial line, but I’m really bad at stopping and finding new angles around that line once I see a path.
In Constructed, this manifests in iterating decks. I build a deck and after some testing I find one of my three-drops is good, while the other is bad. If I
want to try and build a deck to support the other three-drop, I start just filling the deck up with the good cards I was playing in the first case. I then
reach the point I started from, where I now know the second three-drop is bad, and just drop it. Because I have the preexisting context of what is good in
the first shell, I struggle to reframe everything.
In Limited, this happens in terms of gameplay. I’ll start doing math assuming my removal spell has to kill their one creature, or that I’m not attacking
with a specific creature and do a bunch of math to find the correct play given that. Except the right play was not based on that pretense.
For example, in a recent Dragons of Tarkir Limited match, I have two 2/2s and a 3/3 against my opponent’s 3/3 flier and Harbringer of the Hunt (5/3 flying
Dragon with crazy awesome board sweeping abilities). I have a Self-Inflicted Wound in hand, and my opponent is at six life.
I have been saving this Wound for this Dragon, and I begin thinking about how I can manage this combat to kill it. I end up attacking with my 3/3, my
opponent trades for it with the token to respect a large number of cards, and I Wound the Dragon.
Except I was so focused on getting the second creature out of the way that I just missed the Wound you, put you to four, and have three attacks to one
blocker–locked to deal four damage.
Oops, that’s not how I was thinking about that one.
Fix 3: Pause, Erase, and Rethink
This one is really hard.
I have to stop, erase all pretense, and restart from scratch.
In Limited, I fail to do this on a regular basis. As a result, if I play a Limited format where my shortcuts for spells are good, I win a lot; and when my
spells start flexing more, I start losing a lot. Still have to solve this, and I’m not sure how.
As for Constructed, I’m getting better. When I have to restart to test a new card, I restart hard. Instead of erasing just the competing effect, I will
erase whole linkages. If I’m trying to figure out how good a previously secondary three-drop is in a new shell, I’ll be sure to start with four of it but
also with zero of the two- and five-drop that play best with the top three-drop. Maybe the deck is trash, but I’ll see how good the other card is
independent of the first shell and see how other new cards interact with it to create possibly better interactions.
Pitfall 3: Failure to Act / Trust Yourself
The downside to this kind of iteration is it takes time and mental energy.
The first part (time) results in draws when you iterate options in games. To paraphrase a Reid Duke line about Miracles, sometimes it’s better to make a
decent play given the time you have and lose a bit more rather than try to make the perfect play and draw a bunch more (or be rushed later on and cease to
play perfectly when it is too late to change the clock and critical to make the right plays). I’m extremely aggressive with clock management, but without
pinpointing the exact details of it, the short version is that if you find yourself regularly unintentionally drawing, you are doing something wrong.
Outside events, pulling too close on time leads to a lack of deck development. I wish I had an answer for when it was right to turn the corner, but it’s
fairly imprecise. My recent team discussion article came close, but a lot
of how long you need to work to proficiently play a deck and have a good list varies wildly from event to event.
The later part of this is a bit more subtle. In some ways, there is exhaustion over a day from repeated decisions, but another part of it is the creeping
doubt leading to worse plays. Sometimes you start questioning decisions, get the fear from some uncertainty that comes to mind, and play your way out of an
easy win. These aren’t wrong plays in the typical sense people use of “your information led you to believe this, but that should be eliminated as a
possibility” wrong, but in the “your play led you to losing” wrong.
Sometimes they don’t have it. Yes, even the pros. In fact, possibly especially them. There are situations you can pull leverage given your position, and
some you can’t. There are tons of possible tricks that someone could have. You can think of countless ways to lose or win.
Long story short, there’s a reason why Magic hasn’t been solved. The decision trees are massive, and you start trying to judge percentages you have no real
way to judge. Your decision is effectively random, while your short cut decision is right a biased percent of the time towards being right.
Honestly, if you find yourself constantly forcing yourself to make tough decisions in Magic, odds are you are going to make a significant percentage of
These probably only barely scratch the surface of what I’m doing wrong, but that’s okay. A year ago I didn’t see some of the mistakes I’m making now, and a
year before that I was making mistakes that I fixed a year ago.
As the discussion I started off with went, even the best players have flaws, they just solve a lot of the ones leading up to their current ones. What
matters to me now is that I’m recognizing these and making progress.