Chatter of the Squirrel – Got There! (And Other Ruminations)

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Wednesday, April 15th – Round one, Singapore PTQ. Third game, three life, two Mutavaults and four other lands on my side, a grip full of counters. Venser and a Clique, too. In hand. My opponent has himself a Gaddock Teeg, a Mogg Fanatic, and an Isamaru. I am not afraid of whatever he might have in his hand unless I’m out of mana. It’s my end step, he taps three. I ready counter mana and pause. “Volcanic Fallout,” he announces.

Round one, Singapore PTQ. Third game, three life, two Mutavaults and four other lands on my side, a grip full of counters. Venser and a Clique, too. In hand. My opponent has himself a Gaddock Teeg, a Mogg Fanatic, and an Isamaru. I am not afraid of whatever he might have in his hand unless I’m out of mana.

It’s my end step, he taps three. I ready counter mana and pause.

“Volcanic Fallout,” he announces.

We sit there. Rain distinctly does not fall in the little open atrium-area under which we are forbidden to play our matches. A breeze distinctly does not rush through the hall and ruffle cards across Progenitus-print playmates. A baby does in fact cry briefly but is silenced by a stern mother. I am plotting whether to Venser, whether that even helps, whether I actually stand any chance of winning if I Venser into Clique for the Fallout. Seconds pass. Wait, only six mana. There goes that plan. More seconds. The sun casts the shadow of a perched bird onto the guy’s next to me Elf deck. That is one huge Visionary. Six mana. Not seven. Hmm.

At this point he and I have been staring at the Fallout for maybe half a minute.

It’s then I notice: That Mogg Fanatic is still right there. Next to the Fallout. Just kind of hanging out. Doing whatever, you know, Fanatical Moggs do in their spare time.


“Okay,” I say. “That resolves.”

He moves to sacrifice the Fanatic.

“That’s not how that works,” I say. Judge agrees, says he passed. I mop the game up in short order as he Wraths his board and runs out of gas.

What’s the saying that we’ve heard a lot recently, kind of profound-sounding and melodramatic but which we secretly want – okay, sometimes yearn – to be true when we’re trying to erect a narrative for our own lives, some kind of story that makes it all makes sense?

“It is written.”

That one.

Yeah, sometimes it is.

This article is mainly going to highlight some of my thoughts about the state of mind you need to assume when you enter into any major tournaments, and how that state of mind affects your subsequent performance. The truth is that after the moment I just described to you in round one happened, I was positive I was going to win the tournament – despite zero continuous sleep, despite secondhand-smoke immersion that made my face feel stuffed with cotton and my mind hum the idle drone of an engine that you’re cranking but won’t start, despite playing terribly. But there’s a lot of trivia I’d like to mention first, some facts that just sort of darted into my mind over the course of the PTQ and that I want to catalogue before they flutter away.

Unless you’re practicing for something, don’t enter a tournament unless you reasonably think you can win it.

To me this seems kind of obvious, but it’s amazing to me the amount of people who play decks like Burn or Mind’s Desire (without some kind of strong plan to mitigate the hate) or stuff like B/G “Rock” sans-Loam at PTQs. I ask them: Why on earth were you casting the spell Spark Elemental in a competitive event? And constantly I hear answers like, “Well, I just wanted to cast spells and see if I got lucky.” Mind’s Desire is another similar deck, a deck where you can just sort of cast your Rituals and see if you’re Storm is big enough to get there*. If that’s the case, why are you entering a competitive Magic tournament, an event designed to test skill and gain entry into an extremely elite cadre of great players? If you win a tournament with this attitude, do you really think you in any way deserve to be on the Pro Tour? What does such a victory even mean? And isn’t the expected value of shipping twenty bucks to in essence roll dice – roll dice where the better the opponent is, the more those dice are loaded against you – extremely low?

I understand the desire to play casually completely. But if you want to play casually, why are you entering, again, a competitive Magic tournament?

I feel like I have articulated this poorly and sound kind of condescending. That’s not what I am going for. I am aiming to encourage more active thinking. I asked a guy playing aforementioned B/G Rock how he ever beat an Ancestral Vision or a Future Sight or a Sower of Temptation or a Vedalken Shackles, and he didn’t have an answer. You know that Mono-U Wizards wins more PTQs than any other deck. If you don’t understand how some vital element of that deck interacts with whatever you propose to play, you really need to learn that ASAP before you pay money to enter into a tournament. It wasn’t as if he had a bad answer to that question. It’s as if it hadn’t occurred to him.

Think about these things.

Don’t mysticize Blue decks

Four separate people to whom I’ve talked recently have vowed to “give Blue decks a try next season.” While I admire that statement in the sense that it reflects a willingness to play the best deck, I hesitate to endorse it, because very frequently Blue decks are not the best decks. You shouldn’t be looking to play a Blue deck or a Red deck or a Goblin deck or a Blazing Shoal / Slippery Boggle / Double Cleave deck, or whatever. You should – if you’re going to pay money to enter competitive tournaments – play a deck that allows you to win.

The common misconception, I think, is that decks like Zoo are ‘easy to play’ while decks like Faeries are ‘hard to play’ or ‘confusing.’ The reality is that, yes, Zoo decks are probably easier to play badly and still win than Faerie decks, but that doesn’t mean they’re easier to play in general. And, again: if you think you’re bad at Magic, why are you entering a competitive Magic tournament?

I myself find it incredibly difficult to play aggro perfectly. Something like Goblins, sure, but I am notoriously awful with Zoo because I never know how to pace my spells. Decks that have inevitability, by contrast, are easy to me because the goal is always the same: think of the opponent’s possible threats and neutralize them. Then all you have to do is evaluate your aggressive Strategic Moments and you can play more or less like a master. Point being, though, that control decks don’t have any inherent superiority that you should always be looking to exploit. I loved Olivier’s recent article about the ‘levels’ of Magic Player, but I don’t think that playing a control deck necessarily represents a step up. The problem is that people put control decks on this like pedestal, and it greatly inhibits their growth because they feel some mysticism about a nonexistent artificially-constructed tier.

Play what’s good. If it requires some expansion outside your comfort zone to determine what that is, well, be ready to expand.

Think about sideboarding

Why on Earth, for example, would anyone leave in Path to Exile against Faeries with Zoo? Path is a really really really really really bad Seal of Fire in that matchup. An I am talking exponentially, incredibly worse Seal of Fire. And Seal of Fire is irrelevant enough to sideboard out. When Faeries gets to Riptide Lab mana against you, it’s a bad thing – probably, in fact, the worst thing that can happen to you. Why aid that goal? Yet I guarantee that people keep in Path because a) it’s ‘good’ in the abstract and b) is expensive**, which make people think of that slot as immutable.

This is what I mean when I say think about sideboarding. Sam Black put it very well when he pointed out that you’re presenting a deck of sixty cards to the opponent, and it consequently needs to look like a deck. There are no such things as ‘holdovers from the maindeck.’ Put simply, in games two and three, there is no maindeck. Don’t sell yourself short because of that.

Recognize that the most important thing you do at any given tournament is play

… and I don’t mean “Well, at the end of the day, no matter what happens, at least we’re playing Magic.”

No. I mean that in-game decisions are far and away the most important determinant of results at the PTQ level. At Constructed Pro Tours for totally new formats, I’ll give the edge to innovation. At Pro Tours for well-established formats in matches between the game’s top players, I’ll even concede that the most relevant variable is luck, but only because both players’ skill is at such a high level that variance is allowed to assume disproportionate import.

I won three matches at this past PTQ that, were my opponents ‘perfect’ players, I would have lost. I do not say ‘should have lost.’ No. I ‘should’ have won, by virtue of the fact that my opponent made mistakes and I exploited them. But how many times do we hear this? “Oh, I should have won game 1, but I made this epic punt and he got me the turn before he’d have died to Vortex.” “Oh, I should have won that match easy, but he topdecked like four spells in a row and…”

There is no such thing as shoulda.

I emphasize this not to discourage people from telling luck-stories, but rather to highlight the distinct disconnect between how much time we spend brewing up new decks or brainstorming what list we want to play versus how much time we spend practicing that one deck once we’re there. This season is the first in which I’ve played the same deck from beginning to end. It helped that I really enjoy how the deck plays, but mainly I realized early on that it was theoretically sound, had no real easily-exploitable weaknesses, and that the time I invested in it would always yield return because there was no possibility – as there frequently is with a new concept – of inputting hours upon hours only to have the idea turn out to be useless in the end. Thus I could maximize what little time I had available. Consistency paid off, in this case, because even though my list may not have approached some kind of hypothetical nadir for what a format’s best-possible-control deck would look like, it did allow me the tools to construct a deck that would be good enough, and play it well enough to take advantage of the discrepancy between my familiarity with a matchup and an opponent’s. I say I was playing terribly this past weekend because I was. But ‘terrible’ when you’re tremendously familiar with a deck is an altogether different kind of terrible than how you play, for example, with Loam when your opponent has just cast Relic of Progenitus and you have no idea, really, what to do.

I just realized how markedly my tone has shifted from last week. It’s very, like, didactic. That wasn’t the intention, really. I don’t think anything profound has happened now that I’m qualified again***. I don’t want my perspective to have changed entirely. It may be simply that my grueling two-hour-forty-five-minute semifinal has shaken the rhetoric from my brain. It may be that I’m finally able to address a whole host of things that were previously sitting on the back-burner because of issues I felt were more ‘pressing.’ Whatever it is, I’m not purporting to have figured something mystical out. Those were just some pressing observations.

But all this talk earlier about state of mind.

I approached this weekend’s PTQ with a different set of goals. For one, I was more tired, more weary. Work has probably contributed to this. As did further conversation with Shea, the girl whose career-crisis I mentioned last week. But I determined to enter the PTQ not principally with the goal of winning, though that would certainly be a very pressing Goal Number the Second. Mainly, I just wanted to avoid the tilt, the frustration, the anxiety I talked about last week. That I was going to avoid sinking to that low at all costs. That the real victory, for me, would be the maintenance of that moral threshold.

I didn’t meet that goal – but not because I even tilted.

See, I’m not one to assert that the relationship between my victory and that goal was necessarily causal. Intellectually, I can’t really validate that notion. Indeed, it would seem extremely counterintuitive; after all, focus, investment, immersion in the game are all positive attributes when it comes to gameplay. And I feel, as I’ve mentioned, that I played worse than my four previous attempts, only to have the pieces fall together despite that.

But still. It sort of, you know. Feels like there’s a connection.

See, what was sort of disappointing about this win was that my means of avoiding the tilt that comes with loss was not, for example, to confront the same kind of anguish and discontentment as I had previously, only to fight it harder and stronger than ever. No, instead I distanced myself from the outcome – which had the side effect, ironically, of preventing me from really reveling in my win as I know I would have previously. It’s for this reason I say I didn’t meat the goal of not-tiltage. Because I never had to confront it. For one, I wasn’t losing. But, on another level, it seems like my solution of emotive distance wasn’t really a solution at all.

On the other hand, my cognitive enjoyment, fulfillment, ecstasy, etc. at my goal is as euphoric as it’s ever been. I’m elated – thrilled! – to be back on the tour. I just don’t feel it in the same way as I would have only a week ago.

What’s truly intriguing about this situation to me is that in order to achieve my goals, I had to abandon them. I am not saying this is always necessarily the case. I am not trying to orate a proverb. But in this particular instance, my means of winning was to stop caring about winning, and my means of avoiding tilt was to stop caring about the things that made me tilt. Which raises the question:

What’s more important? The fact that we achieve our goals, or the feeling we get when we achieve them?

Hmm. I do wonder.


* I am not saying that either Desire or even Burn are inherently non-skill-intensive decks, only that the attitudes of people with whom I’ve talked have frequently reflected the attitude of ‘cast my spells and see what happens.’

** This is also why, despite the fact that Tarmogoyf is very frequently terrible, people are so reluctant to ever side it out. ‘It’s Tarmogoyf!’ People like George Clooney are celebrities. Creature — Llhurgoyfs are not. He’s not untouchable, I promise.

*** Whereas for the GP and the other 3 PTQs, I really would have felt totally elated, have felt vindicated somehow, redeemed. The connection between that and my winning now is probably not incidental.