Black Magic – A 2009 Magic Retrospective

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Tuesday, December 22nd – In today’s edition of Black Magic, Sam looks back at a milestone year for his own personal Magic progression. He discusses a number of his high-profile tournament performances, both good and bad, and shares the lessons he’s learned along the way.

As we approach the end of the year, people often look back on the previous twelve months. This has been a significant year for me with regards to Magic, as it’s the first year I’ve been qualified for everything, and, because of that, the first year that I’ve traveled to foreign GPs. It’s often hard for me to know how useful an article I write actually is, because it’s hard to know what everyone else knows. I don’t know if something I’m thinking about writing is obvious or useful. The solution that I generally try to use to keep my articles meaningful is to write for myself. Whenever possible, I like to write articles that force me to think through things I hadn’t fully considered. I figure that if it’s new to me, there’s a good chance it’s new to several of my readers. I mention this because I think it will be valuable to me to look back at what I’ve done this year and consider with the advantage of further hindsight what I can learn from various events of the year. Ideally, somewhere in this article I’ll write something that I hadn’t considered at the time of writing this sentence. This, incidentally, is why I love writing. I feel like I can learn a lot just from doing it. So, from the beginning:

Grand Prix: LA kicked off the year. I played Elves and finished 18th, which was my best GP finish at the time. I lost a match to Brett Piazza after he didn’t play a card in game 1, because I thought he was playing a different deck than the one he was playing, and sideboarded out my best cards against him. I’m pretty sure there’s a lesson there about how I would have been better off not sideboarding than guessing. This event was important for me because it let me start the year on a high note, and feel like I could really do this. It’s also one of the events for which I prepared most. I built several different decks on Magic Online and played twenty eight-man queues each with them. I tracked all my results and ran all the numbers to see which of my decks was winning the most, and how each of those decks matchups played out. My data told me to play Elves, but also told me that my Faeries matchup was bad. Somehow I ended up spending several hours playing post sideboard games of Elves versus Faeries on Magic Online with Kenji in which I tried several different sideboard plans to figure out what I could do to make that matchup closer. In the end I went 2-2 against Faeries in the GP, which is pretty good for my worst matchup. Considering that event in hindsight, I think it really highlights the value of preparation and putting in the work. There’s also the value of having a system, sticking to it, and using time testing productively. I didn’t know what to play or how some decks in the format played, so I put in time with all kinds of decks to learn how to play with or against them, and the results told me what to play. After figuring it out, I also knew what I needed to work on with a deck to shore up my weaknesses, and I was able to go into the GP far more prepared for all of my matchups than my opponents were.

Pro Tour: Kyoto was similar, in that I did well and I felt like my success was based on knowing my deck and the format extremely well. I played Faeries, a deck that I’d played several times before, including in Worlds months earlier. Every tournament before that in which I played the deck, I felt like I learned something valuable about how to play it, especially in Worlds, where my one loss in the Standard portion was to Masashi Oiso playing the deck far better than me… but I was able to learn from him there. I don’t remember feeling like I learned anything about how to play Faeries at PT: Kyoto or GP: Barcelona later. I felt I knew exactly what I was doing, and it was just a matter of executing everything. I lost one round in the Standard portion of PT: Kyoto, and that was against Kazuya Mitamura, and I had a game loss because I somehow failed to register my Faerie Conclaves. Yeah, I misregistered my deck for a PT. That was pretty terrible. My lackluster 3-3 performance in the Limited portion kept me to a respectable but workaday 27th place (still my highest PT finish). I know that going into the Limited portion of that tournament I said that I thought I would do much better if every Necrogenesis was secretly removed from every booster and replaced with another uncommon. I really liked drafting a Grixis unearth deck, but couldn’t beat that card. It’s an uncommon though, so it didn’t seem worth changing my plan. I lost to Necrogenesis, of course.

That’s not the important part of what happened in the Limited portion of that tournament though, I now remember. My first pick of the draft was between Vithian Stinger and Tower Gargoyle. I couldn’t decide, and grabbed one as time was called – the Stinger. That pick was terrible, and happened partially because I didn’t realize how much worse that card was with Conflux than it had been without. As it turned out, if I had taken the Tower Gargoyle I would have been passed an amazing Esper deck with Sharuum and Martial Coup, among several other amazing cards. Instead, I lost to Sharuum. So, the conclusion: I was putting in good work on Constructed and getting results, but my Limited game was slipping as I was getting much less practice that I was accustomed to. Also, I need to be careful to reevaluate cards from set one in context after set two comes out.

Next up was Grand Prix: Chicago. It’s hard to prepare for Legacy. It doesn’t exist on Magic Online, there are a ton of decks, and not many people play. The best I could manage was to play a lot of Classic on Magic Online, which, at the time, was pretty similar, but Necropotence was legal and unrestricted and several sets weren’t out. I knew that Counterbalance would be everywhere after Paul’s success with it at Worlds, so I wanted to play Aether Vial to beat it. I started with Merfolk, and I liked my list a lot. While I was testing it, I learned about a crazy Wizard deck with Aether Vial and Sky Hussar, which was kind of like Merfolk, but much cuter. I gave Gaudenis my Merfolk list, and he finished 9-0 on Day 1, and I played the Wizard deck, largely because it would be more fun and look much crazier if I did well. I didn’t have enough data to know which deck was actually better. They seemed to have pretty similar matchups. I didn’t make Day 2 and I think this was a classic example of “don’t get cute.” Thinking about it now, a more specific piece of information for me to take away from this was that the reason I was interested in the deck in the first place was to target a specific metagame that I don’t think currently exists in Legacy, which is further evidence that I should really move away from Aether Vial based strategies for future Legacy events.

Grand Prix: Hanover and Grand Prix: Singapore… these were one trip for me. In Hanover, Gaudenis spent the days before the tournament sightseeing, comfortable with the deck he had, and Brian Kowal and I spent the time testing and fine tuning our deck. We all played Blue, but Gau’s deck was based on Tarmogoyfs and Cantrips, while Brian and I played Faeries with Trinket Mage. Gaudenis finished 2nd, I didn’t make Day 2. So much for lessons in being well prepared. Well, that’s not really fair. I wasn’t as prepared for this event as I needed to be. I was tuning my deck the day before, and what Gau needs to succeed is not necessarily the same as what I need. After Hanover we went to Singapore, where we stayed in the same hostel as Bucher, Paulo, Zac Hill, Juza, and Olivier for the week before the event. Again, Gau spent the week as a tourist, visiting an old girlfriend in Malaysia and generally having adventures. I stayed in the hostel and learned how to play the Blue deck in Extended, learning primarily from Bucher and Zac. By the time the Grand Prix happened, I finally knew what I was doing again, and I beat Paulo playing for Top 8, where I lost to Saito. This was by far the most skilled group of players I’ve worked with for an event, and they taught me a lot in that week. Also, I think I learned that coincidence and proximity seem to be among the leading factors in determining not only who you work with for an event, but also who you should work with for an event.

Also, when I got to the site in Singapore, I immediately discussed the deck with Aaron Nicastri and Alex West, the two players attending with which I was friends. This offended the people I’d been working with, who felt like I was giving out their deck without permission. It had never occurred to me to try to keep the details of a known deck secret, and I figured any new perspective might help, but in this case, I needed to make sure it was okay with everyone. I think I learned something about the expectations of teams and working with people, although, in reality, I think the primary lesson I learned is that I don’t like it. I haven’t found a good enough way to avoid secrecy in preparation for events, but I know that I don’t like how the community deals with things at the moment.

Grand Prix: Barcelona happened much later, the week after Regionals. I happened to watch the Seismic Swans deck play its first Top 8 at Chicago Regionals, and I wrote about the deck for the next week. I didn’t like it quite enough to play it, and I was pretty happy with my matchup against it with Faeries. Faeries had gotten a lot worse since Kyoto because of the printing of Zealous Persecution and the popularity of the BW deck, which had become a bad matchup, thanks to that card. Fortunately, the Swans deck would help keep BW in check, particularly at the top. Also, I still knew how to play Faeries very well. I managed a 2-1-1 record on the weekend against BW, which was good enough to Top 8. In the Top 4, ignoring the advice of LSV and Nassif, I got ahead of myself, got carried away with the excitement of winning a Grand Prix because my matchups were so good, and managed to throw away my third game of the Top 4 to an amazingly bad play when I had all the information. I think that might be the only sanctioned match I’ve ever lost to Five-Color Control with Faeries, and it was entirely my fault. I’m not sure what exactly caused me to make that play in that game, when I know it’s not something I’d normally do. For the record, the play was playing Jace on turn 3 when he had two mana up. He countered it and played his own, and the game spiraled out of control. I had my own counter and plenty of lands, so I was prepared to win the game through whatever line of play he chose if I didn’t try to be aggressive there. Again, I was rewarded for playing the deck I know, and the lesson was to keep my head in the game and stay focused until I’m actually done. I have a history of getting sloppy and losing when I’ve already “won,” and I need to remember that a game’s not over as long as my opponent is still playing.

Grand Prix: Seattle was going to be perfect. It was right after Barcelona, which Swans had won, so everyone would have to move away from BW. Faeries was the obvious deck for the tournament, but I was prepared for that. Everything that could happen in the metagame had to be good for me. This was going to be just like Barcelona but easier, and I’d get another chance. That all basically held up. Faeries did extremely well at the event. The only thing that took me by surprise was the rise of Jund, a deck that wasn’t really relevant in Barcelona. I needed more Flashfreezes and Deathmarks, and I lost to Nassif because I didn’t have them, but I’m not really sure how I should have predicted that based on the metagame from Barcelona. Some bad luck kept me from making Day 2, which was really disappointing. My other two losses were both pretty good matchups, but things just didn’t work out. It happens sometimes. I think my sideboard was built wrong for this event. I may not have known that Jund would be played, but Patrick Chapin had been writing about the deck enough that I should have been aware of it, and I think there was no good reason for my sideboard not to have been better equipped. I think I still had too much sideboard space for Five-Color Control, which was not getting much play. I guess I expected more people to pick up Neri’s Five-Color deck that I lost to in Barcelona, but, if I played correctly against that deck, I really didn’t need as much as I had even if people did play it.

Pro Tour: Honolulu was basically a disaster. I’d been traveling and playing Standard, and I didn’t feel like I knew the formats at all. I spent a few days in Honolulu working on it, of course, but it just wasn’t enough for me. I need more time and more work than that, by a large margin, to understand a format. I think the lesson here is that the work that had been paying off at the beginning of the year really is necessary for me, and I can’t stretch myself too thin. I have to prioritize and focus on the important tournaments. This is a particularly important lesson going into the beginning of 2010, as there are a lot of different formats in play in very close proximity to each other. I need to set realistic goals and choose which events I have to skip because I just don’t have time to properly prepare.

Grand Prix: Sao Paulo, which I didn’t attend, still contained an extremely valuable lesson which I learned with Shuhei and Saito: Make sure you know exactly what is required when traveling to a foreign country. Specifically, when planning to go somewhere somewhat obscure (let’s say anywhere other than the U.S. or Japan, and anything in the EU, for Americans), make sure to check to see if they require a visa and what is required to get one. I’ve talked to enough people who have no idea what this is, so I’ll explain. I’m not talking about a credit card. A visa is a document that countries can require of citizens of other countries to enter their country. I think they would theoretically be required to go most everywhere, by default, but many countries have treaties with each other not to require them. Still, there are many countries that America requires visas from (basically because they want to keep closer tabs on people from those countries, to make sure they’re not planning to stay in America, I think), and many of them require visas from Americans (largely for leverage in negotiating to have America stop requiring visas of their citizens, as far as I can tell). Getting one requires varying amounts of paperwork depending on the country, and also costs some (again variable) amount of money. I didn’t know that Brazil required a visa in time to get in.

U.S. Nationals was my last chance to play Faeries. I thought it was over. I thought Great Sable Stag was the final nail in the coffin and I would have to play something else, but as results from other countries came in and the Standard metagame shifted, it looked like the best option by the time Nationals came around. I finished 10th, continuing my grand tradition this year of being extremely well prepared to play Faeries, but not having as much practice in Limited as I’d like, and putting up merely average results in that portion. Not much more to take away, just a continued reminder that I need to play more Limited for mixed format events. It’s just so hard to do because the payoff feels so much lower for any time put into Limited. Given all the data I have supporting the importance of testing Constructed, I’m still not sure how best to proceed on correcting my preparation for multi-format events.

The remaining Limited GPs are something of a blur of mediocre finishes, failure, jet lag, and only average preparation. Too much time spent traveling, and not enough time spent drafting. It’s really hard to prepare properly when so many days are lost in transit. This has led to my conclusion that I need to take fewer trips abroad this year, which should be fine, as the Midwest Master Series and the StarCityGames.com $10k Open series should give me plenty to play in this country.

Pro Tour: Austin was only marginally better than Pro Tour: Honolulu. I’d played a lot of matches, but almost all of them involved Zoo. We couldn’t find a deck that beat it consistently enough to justify testing against other decks, but the result is that I felt like I knew only a small portion of the format, and also like I kind of had to play Zoo. Again, this was my fault – stretching myself too thin. This time it was taking a week off right before the Pro Tour to play in the World of Warcraft Miniatures World Championship Tournament. It was entirely correct for me to play in that, since it was probably my most profitable weekend of the year, but it certainly created an unwelcome gap in my Extended preparation.

The real lesson from the Pro Tour is something I’ve written about before. Our testing was flawed in that we didn’t put enough work into testing with or against the best lists possible; we just wanted to get a general feel for what the deck was trying to do, so we figured any list was fine. Details matter a lot, and I think we dismissed most archetypes not because they were bad, but because our lists were bad. This is part of why I like testing on Magic Online. You’re always playing against something that someone believes in enough to put money on it, and they probably have a reasonable list.

Worlds, of course, was a disaster that was so close to working out. I’d finally put in a reasonable amount of work again, and I’d done it in an almost reasonable fashion. I had found a new method of testing that I was very happy with (putting physical decks with real cards together). I had reasonable lists to test with and against. The only problem is that I was too lazy to build sideboards, and tested only game 1s, and had no idea how to sideboard. The lesson, which I’ve since put into place, is to build 75 card decks and only play post sideboard games. Try different sideboard plans while testing. This helps address both the problems from Austin (because you’re always thinking about changing cards as you try to work out the proper plan) and the problem from Worlds.

In summary, this year has shown that hard work pays off, but only if it’s the right kind of work. I’ve had teachers in the past say, “It’s not practice that makes perfect, it’s ‘perfect practice makes perfect.'” My results in Magic this year support that. I’ve taken a lot of steps to learn how to properly prepare, and I’ve learned that that takes time, and it also includes being in proper physical condition, and this means travel has to be limited, at least for me, for now. Ideally, soon I’ll have gotten better at the game and at preparing, and I’ll be able to succeed with a little less time invested, and then I’ll be able to travel more again.

Thanks for reading, enjoy the holidays, and remember that while there probably isn’t a tournament right now, the next season is just around the corner, and it’s extremely beneficial to get a head start.