I’ve always been a believer in the idea that you learn more from defeats than from victories. Which means, over the years, that I’ve learned an awful lot. There’s a particular problem which I’ve known about for years, and which I’ve seen cost players a lot of games, but which I’ve found hard to explain properly. It’s when you lose because you are on autopilot. Let me try to explain what autopilot is.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to a PTQ. For me, it was in fact a prerelease, as I didn’t really know what any of the cards did, and it is hard to remember them from the spoiler list when about half of them are called “Kami”. Happily, I got a good Sealed Deck, with no power rares, but 2 Nezumi Cutthroats, six two-drops in my final deck, two Cage of Hands, some good finishers including Devouring Greed and Blood Rites, the amazing Blind with Anger and some Red spells which dealt damage (though no splice cards). I also had some Blue and Green cards, but these were less relevant, so I built a heavy Black deck with a splash of Red and White. Given the nature of my deck, my plan was obvious – to start beating down quickly with evasive creatures – with a backup plan of stalling and getting in position where a Blood Rites or a Devouring Greed would allow me to finish off my opponent before their larger creatures or power rares could finish me off.
I won the first couple of rounds, drew one and lost to Steve Easton’s turn 4 Horobi in game one when I couldn’t find a single targeted spell in about five turns, and in the second game to his Horobi + Eight-and-a-Half-Tails (a mean combo, in case you wondered).
After this, I had to win the remaining rounds. This seemed fair enough, since I hadn’t done anything too badly wrong against Steve and had a powerful deck. My opponent in round five had a Red-White-Green deck, the first opponent not to be playing Black, which obviously made my Cutthroats more exciting.
I got a fast start in game one, and reduced my opponent to eight life with a Red Zubera and another Spirit in play and a Devouring Greed in hand. I had about seven spirits (including another Red Zubera) left in my deck, and a Yamabushi’s Flame, and was still on 20. Six turns later, I drew nothing of relevance and died.
Game two, I stalled on lands for a couple of turns, but still managed to trade damage with my opponent, and the position was as follows:
My plan here is obvious. I have to try either to keep two Spirits in play or to get Kami of the Waning Moon into play, use its special ability to give some other creature fear, to deal one more damage and let me use the Greed for the win.
On his turn, my opponent cast some equipment, equipped one of his creatures and swung for eight to reduce me to seven. I took my turn, cast the Kami of the Waning Moon and looked across to see my opponent with his only Mountain tapped, and no blockers.
Because I was fixated on my plan of getting another spirit into play, I missed the fact that the Glacial Ray couldn’t be used because of my opponent’s misplay, and that therefore a new way to win (attack with the Kami of Ancient Law and then cast Devouring Greed) had opened up. I lost because I was operating on autopilot.
Some of the best theoretical writing on Magic stresses the importance of working out a plan for how to win – deciding if you’re the beatdown, sideboarding the right cards to complement your strategy, whatever. All of this is important. However, there are times when people get so fixated on operating their plan that they miss a much simpler way to gain an advantage or to win.
This is a well-known phenomenon in chess, to the point where impulsive players are encouraged to sit on their hands before going to make a move. The idea behind this is that the couple of extra seconds taken to make a move let you check to ensure that the play that you make doesn’t have any unfortunate consequences, and that you haven’t missed anything which should change the plan that you were intending to implement.
Now I have no intention of advocating that people play slower in general than usual. But if you want to get better at the game, one of the best ways is to ensure that you not only are thinking about what the best plan to implement is, but also that you have a routine which means that you are able to keep on checking to make sure that nothing has changed which makes your plan incorrect.
For example, if there’s a particular matchup where you should usually be the control deck (because your deck has more reactive cards, cannot kill as quickly and so on), do be on the lookout for occasions when in fact you should change your plan. Take Affinity versus Goblins in pre-Champions Standard, or current Extended (which I’m going to talk more about in a minute). Usually, Goblins wins when it plays the control role, using Sparksmiths and Goblin Sharpshooters to clear the board of annoying little artifact creatures and then beating down with whatever happens to be about after gaining control.
This means that someone on autopilot will automatically be looking to play out their Sparksmiths and Goblin Sharpshooters (and cards which assist them like Skirk Prospector and Goblin Warchief). Sometimes, though, there will be an Affinity draw which can beat that, but which would lose to the traditional Goblin beatdown plan of casting Goblin Piledrivers and Clickslithers. This doesn’t mean that it is correct for the Goblin player to cast Piledriver before Sparksmith most of the time, but if the Affinity player is doing something odd like casting a bunch of Thoughtcasts, or if they miscalculate and leave themselves vulnerable to death by trampling Clickslither by not leaving enough blockers, then it’s important to make sure that you’re able to take all that into consideration.
I know that some of you will be thinking that avoiding playing on autopilot is obvious, and when you write about examples which you have as much time as you’d like to think about, the correct play becomes obvious. But in tournament Magic, where time is limited, there is a specific problem of not changing your plans when the situation changes, which I’ve seen change the course of hundreds of games.
If you know the secret of how to avoid playing on autopilot, then do let me know – I never know how widespread some of these problems which I try to describe are. People seemed to understand what the Fear was, though, and this is another thing like that which affects lots of people but doesn’t often get talked about. And it could easily have cost me my place in the Top 8 of that PTQ, so I’m still bitter.
Speaking of still being bitter, did anyone see the live coverage of the top eight of Pro Tour: Columbus? It was all going so, so well. The experts had written off the Red decks and were talking about all the other different interesting decks. A couple of hours later, one Red deck had beaten the Blue/White deck in one semi-final and the other was into game five against the Affinity deck. And then, of course, it all went horribly wrong.
I think what happened was that John Kerry cast the Sparksmith and was all set to wreck Bush’s team, but then the Republicans cast an Engineered Plague and crushed our dreams. That’s what I remember from going to work in a sleep-deprived state after staying up all night on Tuesday, though it is possible that I am conflating two different events. In any case, the real issue is
Why Are You Not Playing Extended?
Extended at the moment is the most fun Constructed format ever. You can play any one of a dozen different decks, with a wide variety of different strategies. There’s no one best deck. It’s no more expensive than Standard, and playing it will help you practice for the Pro Tour Qualifiers. Knowing Wizards of the Coast, there’s probably some stupid cards in Betrayers of Kamigawa which will make one or two of the decks stupidly overpowered, but if there isn’t, then it will be the most open format ever. There are budget decks like U/G Madness which are genuine contenders and not just bad, like are in budget decks in most Constructed formats. There are four different viable combo decks just from the Pro Tour (Life, Aluren, Cephalid Breakfast and Mind’s Desire), beatdown and control decks in all varieties. Even ancient decks which haven’t been good in forever like Blue/White control and White Weenie are viable (well, Blue/White control, anyway). It’s like the Greatest Hits of Magic format.
If this isn’t enough, the coverage from the Pro Tour is comfortably the most comprehensive and best ever, and, given the wide-open metagame, there’s every opportunity for you to take your own deck and dominate with that. That’s what Nick West did, and he won squillions of dollars.
What I was thinking is that rather than making Extended a format just for the PTQ qualifying season, might there be a case for Wizards and tournament organizers promoting it more heavily as an alternative to Standard and Type One? I tested quite a lot of Standard in the run up to States, and it was so much less fun than playing in a format where Affinity is just one amongst a range of good decks. Would it help to get more people along to tournaments if they could play in a format with a much wider range of decks, which probably won’t be obsolete in a year (my Rishadan Ports, Jackal Pups and so on have been doing good service for 4+ years)? [Though to be fair, they will rotate out of Extended next year. – Knut, who likes 1.x almost as much as Dan] I’m not sure it will affect sales of booster packs, because I don’t believe that people actually compete in Standard by opening booster packs and making decks out of whatever they get and trade with their friends for. It would also let Wizards make new cards of a higher power level (which most people would like), to keep them competitive with the older decks, rather than having a whole block of cards which can’t compete with the dominant Standard deck and are generally weaker.
As ever, comments and questions welcome in the forums. ‘Til next time, may your Red Deck not be paired against the Life deck.