Chatter of the Squirrel – A Lesson From Sealed Deck

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As of late I’ve notice myself slipping into a bad habit, and I don’t like it. It makes me uncomfortable. It’s a habit I see a lot of people doing from the early stages of a tournament up until the very final round, and for several years I successfully ridded its pernicious presence from my mind. Over the past couple of months, though, it’s crept back, whispering into my ear in the middle of a game, pulling at my concentration in between rounds, lurking. What is it?

“Misassignment of role = game loss.”

As of late I’ve notice myself slipping into a bad habit, and I don’t like it. It makes me uncomfortable. It’s a habit I see a lot of people doing from the early stages of a tournament up until the very final round, and for several years I successfully ridded its pernicious presence from my mind. Over the past couple of months, though, it’s crept back, whispering into my ear in the middle of a game, pulling at my concentration in between rounds, lurking. What is it?

“I only need to win two more rounds to Top 8!”
“A win here and I’ll only need 5 PT points at Worlds to (do whatever).”
“With the X dollars from a win here I can travel to this, this, and this!”
“Oh man, a 125-man PTQ! That means that most 5-1-1s aren’t even going to Top 8! What a hard tournament!”

For years I battled the tendency to think about a tournament from anything but a game-by-game basis. Any focus you give to the ramifications of a certain finish, or the difficulty you’ll have getting there, or what needs to go right in the future to get you where you want to be, is focus you’re not giving to your current match at hand. Worse, it erects barriers in your mind, hurdles, obstacles to overcome that make you prematurely comfortable if you attain them and overly distraught if you don’t. Obstacles that prevent you from getting better.

Around last year, particularly at Grand Prix: St. Louis, I thought I’d finally learned to deal with this problem. At no point in that tournament did I think about the record I would need to Top 8, how tight it would be if I succeeded, whether that would qualify me for another Pro Tour, or whatever. I just played each round with my mind entirely divorced and un-invested in the circumstances, and as a result I played some of the best Magic of my life. In the year-plus since then I experienced a decent degree of success and never became too preoccupied with what my record was or needed to be.

Come Valencia, though, the problem again reared its ugly head. Although my decks had done well at the Pro level, I myself had never made Day 2 of an Individual Constructed PT. The pressure was on. Each round I had my eyes on the bullseye, and when I won the clincher to put myself at 22 points going into Day 2 I breathed the metaphorical sigh of relief. This was a terrible mistake. As a result I didn’t put in nearly the same amount of mental preparation for my last three rounds – content as I was with my Day 2 finish, the achievement of my goal – and as a result I bombed a chance at the Top 8 with a pitiful 0-2-1. Especially given how insane the deck was, this was inexcusable. If I had played each match for what it was – a match of Magic, nothing more, nothing less – I wouldn’t have full-blown tilted on my second Tron pairing, nor would have I have kept loose hands against the sideboarded nearly-creatureless RDW player because I was up a game.

“Eyes-on-the-prize”-ing gives me a whole lot more momentum, but the problem is exactly that: I don’t want to become dependent on building up force, on accumulating wins at the front end. I started Valencia 5-0-1, but after my first loss my overall record plummeted to 2-3-1. That’s pitiful.

Similarly, at this PTQ I started out 3-0 but found myself focusing during the match on my later rounds, on how I alternatively either had no hope in round 4 or had the game locked up, and as a result my focus wavered. This resulted in a misplay on turn 3 due to a misassignment of role that would go on to lose me the game twelve or thirteen turns later. From there I lost a close match in the clutch versus Aaron White due to manaflood at a very inappropriate time, and playing for rating because I thought my deck was nuts I lost a third to Ajani/Brigid/Chandra/Thundercloud Shaman/Cloudgoat Ranger.dec before salvaging a fourth win in the final. The last two matches don’t bother me. The first, though, was inexcusable. It’s not that I tilted, or anything; I’m over it now and I didn’t harp on it then. But I hold firmly the belief that any time you make a misplay you don’t deserve to win the tournament, and because I couldn’t focus on the round at hand I certainly didn’t deserve to win the tournament – particularly as loaded as that St. Louis PTQ field was. The trouble right now is that I don’t know why this menace of mine has chosen to rear its ugly head yet again.

My best guess is that after Valencia, and really over the last year as a whole after Nationals and after countless matches with the best players in the world, I truly feel that I can compete on the highest level. A number of people have told me this. But instead of taking that as confirmation of my own ability and playing well enough to realize those predictions, I’ve started to put pressure on myself. “I’m good enough to finish in Xth place,” or “If I don’t win X matches I’m going to fall behind and fail to make a dent this season.” Pressure is good as a driving force, something to impel you to take the steps needed for success. When it becomes a distraction like it is now, though, it’s a problem. We’ll work on that.

Before I go into the nature of my particular misplay, I want to give y’all a chance to take a look at my Sealed pool and tell me what you’d have done with it. I normally hate this type of exercise because I can’t really build a Sealed Deck unless I’m looking at the cards, but this is the first pool I’ve ever had where I’m almost 100% confident I got all forty cards correct and I’d be interested to see if your opinions correlate with mine.

The pool:

The obligatory “build deck here” page space

(The obligatory comment about the obligatory “build deck here” page space)

And the deck itself:

Some comments about the pool itself:

I know how good Dolmen Gate is. It was my last cut from this deck. The thing is, this is a control-oriented pool to the Nth degree. I know Gate is particularly potent with Vanquisher and Winnower but I didn’t think I needed any tools to make my deck better once it took the offensive. True enough, at no point during the day – not once – did I wish I had it out. By the time I started to bring it, my finishers were large enough to take care of business themselves.

I love a Thieving Sprite. He wasn’t just another way to turn on my Peppersmoke (easily the best Limited card of all time, move over Umezawa’s Jitte, Masticore, and Cursed Scroll), he was yet another way to deal with massive bombs. I had enough Changelings that by the time I wanted to cast him I could look at their entire hand. Yes, I know I only have three Changelings. The thing about this card is that you can’t just treat it like Ravenous Rats and run it out there unless you want to trade or you think you can reuse it. The optimal time to cast this guy is on turn 6 or 7 when your opponent has one gassy spell and one land in his grip – the exact type of situation that comes up often in Sealed and can mean the difference between winning and losing. Against Alex Kim I hit the critical Avian Changeling that would have turned the tide in his favor, and that’s just one example. If you can reasonably get this guy to hit for two or more, he should make your deck.

Lace with Moonglove in this deck served a similar role: being positively insane when I needed it to be, and replacing itself when I didn’t. With Skeletal Changeling and Huntmaster tokens you can simply get the straight two-for-one, which is always welcome, and every once in awhile you get to score a freebie on a double block. When the card isn’t doing anything, you cycle it away targeting your opponent’s guy at your earliest convenience. Some people suggested Gate or Nectar Faerie in its place, but the thing is that both of those cards are only situationally good. With a deck like this that had both the removal necessary to carry it to the long game and the finishers to end the game once it got there, you don’t need situational role-players. You need cards that streamline the deck and get it to that point.

Hornet Harasser was my last cut. I generally like him in Sealed and he can almost always trade for something. In this deck, though, he is just so blah. I have no way to sacrifice him, no synergies with Goblins, and no particular desire to engineer my manabase to always have access to two Black mana on turn 4. I know I have 7 straight-up Black sources, two Vivid Lands, and the Grotto, but Grotto is very inappropriate for early-game defensive cards and I’m not terribly happy about losing a Vivid counter for this guy either. Sure, you can, but it’s suboptimal. The only proactive thing he does for me is allow me to kill an X/4 with Final Revels. I realized that as solid as this guy generally is, he’s not much more than just that – “solid” – in this deck. That wasn’t good enough to make the cut.

So, now that you’ve seen the deck, I’ll describe for you this mistake. It’s turn 3 – my opponent’s on the play – and he’s played a Paperfin Rascal, revealing Fallowsage and winning the clash. In play he has a Silvergill Douser. On my turn 2 I played a Wren’s Run Vanquisher revealing Woodland Changeling. I’m holding a Nameless Inversion.

On my turn 3, I play Nameless Inversion targeting his Paperfin Rascal and swing for three. While this isn’t a “punt” per se, it’s wrong on so many levels that looking back on the play it’s almost offensively bad. I’m almost disappointed that it even entered my mind as a possibility.

The idea was that by doing this I could get in an attack this turn (my opponent incidentally forgot to Douse in response and so I got in for two rather than three) and more importantly nullify his offense. I didn’t want to trade my insanely good Vanquisher for his low-quality Rascal, but I had no way in hand to deal with the Rascal otherwise and I couldn’t afford to sit and take three. I figured that I’d be fine in the long game just playing defense so he couldn’t start sending with his Fallowsage (if I held back the Changeling and the Vanquisher his Douser was irrelevant) and the longer the game went the better shape I’d be in. Of course, I kill the Rascal, next turn he plays the Sage, and eventually he blows me out with a removal spell on my Vanquisher allowing him to draw two or three cards with the Merfolk. In Sealed even one card is huge; a difference of two is almost always game. In this case, eventually, it was.

Now, the problems with the aforementioned line of thinking are plentiful. His having removal is the most prominent of those but by no means the only consideration to take into account. First of all, why do I even care about one attack? The idea in my head was that if I ripped a removal spell suddenly I’d have him on a pretty good clock, but I don’t need to bank on ripping another removal spell once I’ve already cast a Nameless Inversion. Secondly, the entire “my Vanquisher is much better in the abstract” line of reasoning is idiotic. In draft, it’s incredibly important to try and trade your late picks with your opponent’s early ones, but in Sealed you and your opponent were merely given a finite pool of cards. The nature of draft means that necessarily every card in every player’s deck lies somewhere on a quality gradient; there is simply no way that your 14th picks will be as good as your 1st. Every deck has a more or less rigidly determined quanta of good cards. While this is technically true in Sealed – cards will always be better than others – the variance is much higher. Therefore what mattered wasn’t that by selecting the Vanquisher I necessarily shorted myself of a whole variety of other spells and so therefore I needed to preserve its value as much as possible because if I didn’t chances are my opponent’s card quality would win out in the end. What mattered was that right there at that very moment it was nearly equivalent to his 3/3, and so if I needed to trade I needed to trade.

Of course, all of that holds true only if I wanted to trade in the first place!

The fundamental problem with that play was that I didn’t know my role. All I care about are cards, so if I needed to use the Inversion I should have targeted the Fallowsage if I was going to target anything at all. The Douser was nearly irrelevant; my deck does not care remotely about creature combat, and I’m eventually going to see my Final Revels or Peppersmoke to deal with it and gain an advantage. More importantly, I’m eventually going to draw a creature with more than three toughness, and then my opponent has essentially two dead cards on the table. Even if he draws removal for each and every one of my three-plus-toughness creatures, I can always trade the Vanquisher for the Rascal barring another Merfolk hitting the table. Perhaps most crucially, the Fallowsage didn’t matter at that point in time either! I should have spend my time casting creature spells and then holding two open if it got to the point where I needed to care about his guys. That way I could get a hold of more and more information. I might could draw a Handservant to add value to the Inversion; he may present a juicier target; I might draw a Revels and play the game entirely differently, perhaps even Inverting the Rascal at a later date.

The important lesson is that there was no need for me to be in a hurry. I could afford to take six or nine damage even if I didn’t want to trade my Vanquisher off right away. My deck, at that point in time, was the control deck. I’m up virtual cards, and I’m up real cards because I drew first. I’m in no immediate danger, and so there’s no value to be gained by getting aggressive with the Vanquisher. Instead, I completely botched my role and paid for it.

With that loss my momentum derailed, I started focusing on round-by-round “what-ifs,” and despite my not making any clear mistakes my mind wasn’t wholly in it either.

Hopefully I’ll be rid of this pesky problem next week when I register for battle in Daytona. I’ve become a lot more confident in my Limited game as of late, so I hope to put up good results.

Wish me luck!