Best of the West – The Extra Mile

StarCityGames.com Open Series: Indianapolis on March 13-14
Wednesday, March 10th – In a recent article, Patrick Chapin observed that he is no longer as young as he once was. He asserted that he was losing games because he was already worn out when he sat down to play. The Innovator changed his behavior across the board when it came to preparing for Magic tournaments, and has said that he felt those alterations have contributed to his recent high finish at Pro Tour: San Diego. I am certain he is right.

In a recent article, Patrick Chapin observed that he is no longer as young as he once was. He asserted that he was losing games because he was already worn out when he sat down to play. The Innovator changed his behavior across the board when it came to preparing for Magic tournaments, and has said that he felt those alterations have contributed to his recent high finish at Pro Tour: San Diego. I am certain he is right. Those paragraphs of his caught my attention because I too have gone through a similar process of changing my life outside of playing to enhance my ability at playing the game. In this article I want to talk about all the decisions you make before you ever sit down to play a game, and how they can make the difference in your tournament outcomes.

Sleep: As in M10 Limited, whether you get enough Sleep might be the greatest contributor to your tournament performance. Sure, we all know the guy who shows up to battle without snoozing the night before, but this is an exception. In reality, when people are tested under sleep loss they react more slowly, are worse at cognitive association (read: analysis and decision making), and are more emotional (read: go on tilt more easily). When I was in high school, I stayed up until 2am one night before I was supposed to take the SAT IIs, forgetting the important day ahead of me. My average score was 600 on each test, which is alright but not what I I thought I could get. I rescheduled, took the exams again on a good night’s rest, and made average scores around 750. I hadn’t done any more studying, and yet scored 150 points higher just because of some quality time in the sack. I hope you’re persuaded of the value of sufficient rest.

Easier said than done for some people. We can’t always get to sleep when we lay down. I know quite a few people who are usually night owls (myself included), and then try to change their schedule the night before the tournament. Most people’s bodies just don’t work this way. Sleep is a pattern, your body learns to wake up and go to bed at certain hours, and internally plans accordingly. The most restful sleep occurs when you go to bed at the same time every night, meeting your body’s expectations about what it’s supposed to be doing. If you want to be sleeping on time the night before a tournament, you need to adjust your schedule in the week leading up to it. Slowly moving when you sleep or wake by an hour or so a night can be a comfortable way to move your body’s internal clock. If you plan to play a tournament in a different timezone, remember to shift your rest schedule accordingly. Traveling west is easier than traveling east since all you have to do is stay up an extra hour and your body will be tired and take care of the rest (pun!)

I’ve started shooting for an 11pm bedtime tournament weeks, and as a consequence am always up awake and alert around 7:30, ready to throw down.

Food: Your body is a machine, it requires fuel to run. Your gradeschool health teacher and your mom weren’t lying to you when they told you that “You are what you eat.” I will avoid getting up on a hippie soap box and talking about the merits of organic food, but I will tell you that how often and what you eat contributes a lot to your energy levels, how you feel, and how well you can think. A few years back at a Regionals I elected to pilot Cruel Control. I am not the world’s fastest player, and I had gotten behind one of the format’s slowest decks. The result was that I never had time for a lunch break. Going into round 7, I think I might not have yet dropped a match. Then I just started making crazy misplays, missing triggers, drawing too many or few cards, etc. What happened was that my brain completely crashed because I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. My opponent actually went to a few people to ask if I was a cheater, or what gave. Zaiem Beg kindly explained that I’m an upstanding guy, but without food I can get a little loopy. Having a plan to feed yourself during a tournament is important. Bring energy bars, pack a sack lunch (Matthias Hunt has made a lot of friends sharing his cooler of fruit and sandwich fixings), or have your friend who always 0-2 drops run to get you something. A hungry player is at a disadvantage. (I am amused at a story of Bill Stark, where he intentionally bought a cheeseburger and left it on the table just to distract his opponent whom he knew hadn’t recently eaten. It may be a messed up mind game, but on some level I’m sure it worked.)

Likewise, what you eat is as important as eating regularly. I hired a nutritionist at the beginning of the year to give me the straight dope on what I should be chowing on. The first thing she told me was that I needed to be pairing carbohydrates and proteins together to maximize my metabolism and stay fulfilled for the longest period of time. Your body breaks down carbs fairly easily, and burns them as quick energy. Protein takes longer to metabolize, and will give you a sort of slow burn. For reasons I don’t fully understand, but my specialist assured me, your body gets the best results by mixing these two types of sources together. This is why Trail Mix includes both raisins (carbohydrates) and nuts (protein) and is generally satisfying. Particularly to be avoided are foods with a high glycemic index (read: sugar content), like candy bars and soda. These things are a sort of flash in the pan, your body gets a spike in energy and then crashes as it is let down. Next time you eat something like this, pay attention to how you feel, often thirty minutes to an hour later you might feel tired or unfocused. I would advocate eating well throughout your life, but if you’re mostly concerned about your tournament, you can probably get away with eating balanced meals and lower glycemic foods starting the day before the tournament.

In addition to making sure I have balanced meals the night and morning before a tournament, I make sure I pack a box of Cliff bars in my tournament bag. Having something quick and easy to turn to whenever I feel myself getting hungry or low on energy (even when there’s no food available anywhere) has been a lifesaver.

Exercise: In high school I was on the varsity chess team. Yeah, varsity, that’s right. What’s the best thing about a varsity sport? No, it’s not the letter jacket. It’s getting gym waived from your schedule. (In Illinois the legislature thinks every kid needs 50 minutes of running around every year until they turn 18.) Lazy gamers that we were, we asked our chess coach to sign out passes out of the forced athletics hour, and you know what he told us? Sure, I’ll sign you out, but then we’re going to start running laps while reciting openings after school. Whoa! “C’mon Mr. Goral, don’t make us do that! Let us out of gym!” He then got quite serious and explained that ability to play Chess was rooted in a sound body. He pointed out that your brain does a lot of work all day, and that by the end of a tournament we were all completely exhausted. If we wanted to play better at the end of the day instead of making blunders (the chess terminology for a misplay or punt) we should get and stay in shape. Our chess coach concluded by telling us that the Grandmasters did it, so we should probably too.

It turns out that Mr. Goral was completely on the money; (despite his propensity to drive the wrong way down One Way streets, responding to our horrified screams, “I’m only going one way!”) More oxygen gets to your brain when you exercise, and physical stamina correlates with mental stamina. A study was conducted in which elderly people at a nursing home were given a regime of weightlifting while a control group was left to their usual daily activities. Brain scans were conducted on both groups. After three months the group doing the weightlifting showed more brain activity, on average their brains appeared to be similar to what would be expected for someone two years younger than they were. Similarly, those in good physical condition when tested take longer before they describe themselves as “tired” when doing strenuous mental exercise. There are all sorts of theories as to why this is all the case, ranging from oxygenating the brain, to stimulation of the hippocampus, to increased cell proliferation. Whatever the cause, the fact is it works.

When I realized that I didn’t play as well at the end of the day as at the beginning of the day I remembered Mr. Goral’s advice. I started lifting weights a few times a week, and found my mental game improved. Not only that, but I’ve shed a lot of body fat, which is probably the first and last time Magic will do something really good for my body.

Take it Easy: I know the allure of going away for a weekend with friends can be to get in a bit of partying. Consider what your priorities are. If you’re looking to have a knock-down, drag-out time do it, but know that it’s going to impair your tournament. Not only are you unlikely to get much sleep, but alcohol really is a poison. One or two glasses of wine or pints fall below the threshold of what your body finds difficult to handle, but beyond that you’re probably going to be feeling it at somewhat the next day even if you don’t feel consciously hung over. For a PTQ, consider saving the revelry until Saturday night when there aren’t any more matches to play. Hopefully there’s something to celebrate with someone you know! For Grand Prix and Pro Tours, anyone who makes the cut to the second day is probably going to want to abstain just the same as Friday. It might not sound like as much fun, but consider why you’re there. There are 52 weekends a year, and probably only a handful of big tournaments you get to attend. Life is about making decisions, and if you want to do well at a tournament, some sacrifices need to be made.

Think about surrounding yourself with other people who are going to be considerate of your desires to chill out and get to bed on time. I’ve seen people get in difficult rooming situations where they want to sleep while the people they are with want to party. Talk to people in advance about what your expectations are and make sure people are on the same page as you are. I know people who have been in the Pro Tour, and not been able to sleep because they couldn’t get into their room because their roommates had the key and were out in a club. They didn’t play well the next day, and were pretty pissed at the people they came with. Don’t let yourself get into a situation like this, be proactive.

On a tournament weekend I like to go out for tasty meals with other people who are into food and good company. I usually have a drink to help wind myself down, but not more than that since I don’t want to feel it in the morning. When sharing a room, I choose people who I know value calm before going to battle.

Plan Ahead: I can not count the number of Magic players who on the night before a tournament are scrambling for a hotel room or a ride, asking around to get the cards they need, or furiously scribbling out their deck list at the last minute. All of these things are stressful, and deplete your reserves for dealing with the matches you want to be playing and winning. If you’re going to be staying somewhere else, try working it out at least a week in advance. You generally have a lot more tools at home between the phone and the internet to find people to stay with than you do the night before an event. I’ve known Magic players who have spent the night sleeping in their car or literally on the street because they weren’t able to find somewhere to stay. Likewise, I’ve heard of people missing PTQs because they called around the night before people were leaving, to find that cars were either full or might have had room but already left. Sometimes it doesn’t work out and you have to fly by the seat of your pants, but do yourself the favor of spending a few hours when it’s not crunch time getting these arrangements in order. (Not only does it save you hassle, but it lets you spend your time doing things like talking to people about the metagame, sideboarding, and getting in some final testing before a tournament.)

As far as decks go, I know a lot of people like to brew right up until the night before a tournament. Sometimes we’re too busy, and this is our only choice. However, generally speaking there really isn’t much new information about a format on a Friday that you didn’t already know on Monday. My advice is to try to lock down your deck a full week before a tournament, or at least by Monday (since you now have all the results from the latest PTQs, GPs, or whatever.) There are many advantages to this. First, you can continue to refine your deck, whether main or sideboard, without having the disadvantage of starting from scratch every time you build a new concept out. Second, you can borrow or buy cards as needed. Generally, people have a lot more cards to lend, and a lot more flexibility to bring cards when they’re given advance warning. After all, at the last minute they may have already left or packed for the tournament, or may be panicking over their own deck choices. Finally, this forces you to get at least a week of experience playing your deck, which is often a priceless advantage on the battlefield.

I have received two game losses for deck registration errors in Constructed formats. After the second I realized how easily preventable it is. You can have your decklist on any sheet of paper so long as it includes your name and DCI number. Rather than fill out the list on the spot in the morning, I will pre-print them when I have access to a printer, or write them out the night beforehand so that I don’t risk overlooking something in the buzz and hubub the morning of a tournament. Since I started pre-writing my lists, I haven’t gotten a single game loss. (As opposed to Limited, where every so often I want to die for overlooking a card or miscounting, despite the fact that I triple or quadruple-checked my numbers.)

At this point I’ve established good people to room with when traveling far away, and reliable people to ride with when playing locally. I use Kayak to make any reservations I need to ahead of time, and a combination of Facebook, Gmail, and phone calls to arrange everything at least a week beforehand. I’m not perfect about borrowing cards so far in advance, but I recognize that every time I do it’s much easier, and I tend to play better by practicing with the actual cards. I write my decklists out the night before a tournament so I won’t make an error in the morning.

Test, Test, Test: The end of the last point is something of a natural bridge to this one. Adrian Sullivan once observed of himself that he thought he would win more matches if he stopped looking for a deck that had a higher percentage against the field and instead just focused on learning to play the decks he had at hand. I think this is great advice for almost everybody. Most decks that have finished well at a tournament are very good, and the difference between winning and losing with them often is how well you know how to play them. The very best Magic players play all the time. LSV plays all sorts of tournaments both online and in the California scene. PV makes very good use of Magic Workstation by experimenting with all sorts of decks through Magic League tournaments. No matter what your circumstances, find a way to play your deck as much as you can. You’ll learn every little trick, common pitfalls, which sideboard cards are good where, etc. Even if you can’t find someone to play with, play against yourself, (with proxies if you have to!) I have talked to quite a few people who have Top 8ed a Grand Prix based solely on playing games against themselves either on paper or on the computer.

You will really be amazed by what you learn through adequate testing. For example, a few years ago I was playing a ton of Time Spiral block constructed. I really liked the white weenie and white-green aggressive strategies at the end of the season. This was back in the days were you could watch other peoples’ replays online, and between testing rounds was watching other peoples’ replays. I saw one game where a player sideboarded and played early on a Sacred Mesa against a Mystical Teachings deck. The pegasus tokens almost went all the way by themselves, and a few more support cards put the match away. I decided to try it out myself, and my post board match-win percentage skyrocketed. Pretty sweet for just one card. I think on that weekend I only lost one match to a the B/U menace to Japan’s Shingou Kuihara. He picked up a Sacred Mesa after the match, pantomimed having a heart attack, and said, “Worst card! So hard!” I’m sure The Boss must have felt similarly good when he figured out the Cunning Sparkmage plus Basilisk Collar combination to destroy creatures in the recent Standard format. You just see things when you test, like that certain cards don’t do what you think they do, or other cards are doing amazing things for you.

At this point I’ll test any Limited format by doing between one and three drafts a day on MTGO to get myself in top form. When it comes to Constructed, I’ll mock something up on Magic Workstation to make sure it works pretty well, then buy or borrow the cards on MTGO to make it happen. In really expensive formats, I’ll get together with a few friends to proxy every deck in the format, and then play a ton to figure out what’s good. Note: We play a lot of sideboarded games, they’re more important than the unsideboarded ones!

Work the Angles: At the tournament site there is more to do than just play matches, chat, and eat. If you or friends are playing decks that tend to finish early, you can get the excellent opportunity to gather information about your future opponents. At the Pro Tour in San Diego I was playing in the draft challenge and David Ochoa was in my pod. I noticed that while I was playing my first match, he was standing over my shoulder with a pad of paper making notes about the cards in my deck and that of my opponent. After a while he drifted away from out match to go take notes on the other players in our 8-man group. I had often been too lazy to do it myself but realized that if I wanted to take my game to the next level, here was a good way to get a bit more edge. I caught up with him between rounds to get information on my next opponent which he generously shared with me. It was nice coming into a game knowing more about the bombs and removal spells I would be facing up against. In another situation I was in a lock on an Extended PTQ Top 8 and fairly certain I was going to be paired against a certain player after the cut. After IDing, I went over to his table and watched him play and then sideboard. Just by standing behind him I knew all 15 cards he could bring in against me, and worked out what his likely post-board plans were for our match. You don’t have to do all this work yourself. Have friends or teammates pool information with each other. One tournament I had a bye the first round, and simply walked around recording the archetype that every person in the room was playing. After that round my closer friends would come and ask what their opponent was playing, and I shipped them the info. I and they were all able to make better mulligan decisions knowing what was sitting across from us on the table before game one even began. It seems unfair, but is completely permissible, so you might as well do yourself a favor and start gathering information.

Conversely, be aware that this sort of thing is going on and protect yourself as much as possible. If you don’t know a player, you can call a judge and ask them not to be allowed to stand behind you. Even if they aren’t spying on you, a person behind you can give away information about what’s in your hand, either by craning to see a new card (indicating it’s not a land) or walking away (indicating you have nothing) and ruining your bluff. I once heard Bob Maher (of Dark Confidant fame) comment that he would never get stuck in a seat where the audience could see his hand in reference to a Top 8 match in progress. If you’re not into calling judges, protect your hand. Hold your cards close to your chest so only you can see them. Likewise, if you want to keep your sideboard secret apply the same technique so no one can get a good look at it. I suppose this is cheating the stated topic of things you can do before you sit down to play to enhance your game, but it does help your next matches.

I’ve started carrying a notepad and writing down what people are playing, especially in Limited tournaments where knowing a player has a certain bomb in their deck can change radically whether you need to sandbag removal cards, what life total you’re willing to fall to, or whether you think you have inevitability on them. I talk with other players to see if there’s anything new or unusual in decks that they’ve seen.

I hope you’ve found a few things useful to take away from this article. It’s important to remember that it’s hard to change everything you do all at once, but if you work on changing one habit or behavior at a time, you will slowly and steadily convert your current proclivities to ones that work better for you. I know doing these things have helped me win a lot more, and I wish you the same results.

Next week I’ll be writing from Malaysia with my take on the Standard game in preparation for GP: Kuala Lumpur. Until then, best wishes.