Chatter of the Squirrel – Unprepared

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A number of people told me that it’s time for me to Level 3, no excuses, and to that end I’m going to step up the game next year and do what my heart’s been telling me to do for awhile: become invested enough in Magic that I force myself to achieve the maximum of my ability. It’s been a long time coming, but I love this game, and anything you love you have to take as seriously as you can. This article, though, is going to talk about what you should do when that’s just not possible.

We’re free-forming it, boys.

The number of hours I have spent in Chicago’s O’Hare airport twiddling my thumbs: 22

The number of those hours I actively fantasized about a large cruise ship crashing through the ceiling and landing on me, ending my misery for good: 18

The number of flights I was ultimately able to book back to Memphis: 0.

That’s right, the full-blown Nashville compromise, and ensuing three-hour return. Who flies back to their home city, anyway? I love United Airlines so much right now. I might send them a Christmas card.

So, Worlds.

Audible applause to Chapin, awesome for Uri, awesome for Switzerland. And slash barn to Sadin, who allowed me to crash at Sarah Lawrence for a week, and to Marijn, who somehow convinced me to pour him a glass of water, walk across the tournament site, and deliver it to him without spilling. It’s like I’m fifteen again, swear. But if I’ve got to barn, might as well barn the best.

Can’t complain about my own performance, either. 43rd, enough cash to get to Kuala Lumpur. A number of people told me that it’s time for me to Level 3, no excuses, and to that end I’m going to step up the game next year and do what my heart’s been telling me to do for awhile: become invested enough in Magic that I force myself to achieve the maximum of my ability. It’s been a long time coming, but I love this game, and anything you love you have to take as seriously as you can. I’m hungry now.

This article, though, is going to talk about what you should do when that’s just not possible.

I’ll clarify what I mean first. Writers, myself included, always talk about testing a format as much as possible, knowing it inside and out, understanding the nuances of every matchup such that nothing comes as a surprise. That’s good advice – that’s the best advice! But sometimes we play at tournaments without adequate preparation. There is just no avoiding it. While that situation is certainly far from optimal, it’s still a shame that nobody’s really written anything about what to do when life doesn’t fall your way and you still need to eke out any advantage that you can.

If it wasn’t obvious, that describes my weekend in a nutshell. Scholarship applications, Mock Trial, and end-of-semester exams left me literally no playtesting time, but I had already bought a ticket for Worlds, and I’d be damned if I didn’t show up for a PT I was already qualified for in New York. A lot of people would have done what, um, a lot of people actually did, and just show up for the tournament expecting to get handed a deck. Fortunately, in lieu of actually playing matches, there are a substantial number of things you can do that actually approximate pretty closely the value of real playtesting. Nothing is going to replace sitting down and battling. You learn to draft, you learn to build, you learn to metagame, you learn to sideboard. But man, some things are so much more than nothing.

1) Maximize the time you do have.

I had exactly one weekend to play Magic, no more. I could have spend it FNMing or even making the trek to a PTQ. But Strassy made me pony up, made me take this year seriously, and convinced me to head to Grand Prix: Daytona.

Financially, and maybe even from an EV perspective, this was awful on the surface. For one, winning a KL qualifier is almost as big a payout as a GP, and is a whole lot easier to do. The drive was longer, I’d have to cram more schoolwork into less time, and so on… excuses excuses. But there’s more value to a GP than the GP itself.

I’m firmly convinced that you derive much more from high-level play than you do anything else. It’s why you can playtest a deck for fifty or sixty games and yet realize over the course of two tournament matches that you’re doing something wrong. Similarly, in the “casual side drafts” at Daytona and in the two drafts at the event, a lot is on the line. You have to scrutinize every single pick, focus on every element of the draft, squeeze the most value out of every single one of your forty-five cards, because there is literally no room for error. The consequence of failure is measured in hundreds of dollars and those last few vital Pro Points. This, of course, is the strict standard of performance. But – and here’s the key – when your performance also counts as your playtesting for a larger event, it forces you to learn more from an investment of the same amount of time. You grow faster, and your understanding of the format becomes more comprehensive, because you’re coaxing out every last drop of value from every last one of your games. When you sit down to play, too, you’re focusing all of your mental resources on the match at hand. Not only does that give you more information, but it establishes in your mind that essential cognitive schema of total focus during tournament matches that’s so easy to forget if you don’t lapse into it habitually. You remember not to tilt, you remember to take each match one at a time. So if you’ve got a weekend or two, make it count.

2) Chat, chat, chat.

I didn’t do much battling in either Standard or Legacy. But a two-hour conversation with Adrian and a twenty-minute prowl of the Internet left me knowing all I needed to know about both of those formats. Notice I say “needed.” I could have used something far more comprehensive, could have derived value from testing all the relevant matchups and tuning my list accordingly. But what you absolutely need in any environment is an understanding of the relevant decks, what strategies they present to you more generally, and what your plan is against every single one of those strategies. A lot of that you can get from other people, especially if those people have been doing a lot more work than you.

From Billy and Steve, for example, I got to my final Legacy list (which I like immensely). I wasn’t mooching, or just asking for a deck to play. Instead I had an idea of some things that might work, and in talking to them I established enough of an information bank to consider whether or not any of my pursuits were valid. As it turns out, they were. Because of that, I could take a spare fifteen or twenty minutes a day and be absolutely certain that what I was applying my time toward was actually relevant.

3) Find the best deck that you can actually play.

I was ecstatic about my 3-2 finish with Johnny Walker Red. Is the finish particularly good? No, but I am absolutely awful at Standard, and I didn’t punt a game. I had excellent Faeries decklists from Marijn and potentially Steve, but the thing is I had no idea how I needed to play those decks. They interacted with the other poles of the format in myriad, complex ways that I could not possibly understand without games under my belt. Adrian’s deck wasn’t easy to play by any means, but I understood it. I could react adequately to any situation my opponent presented to me because I was familiar with the theories upon which the deck was built. Moreover, I knew that I had inevitability by definition in all matchups*, and so it was easier to take on the proper role in a given game.

I don’t understand how people show up to a tournament and ask to get handed a deck. Most of the time, in fact, it makes me ill, because it’s just asking to get shot in the foot due to your own errors. Constructed is so complicated that you can’t expect to simply cast spells and win with them any significant amount of the time. Yet this article talks about operating on a limited timeframe, so how is picking up a fairly untested deck different from an entirely untested one? The answer is that with a little bit of knowledge, with a little bit of preparation, you at the very least can concoct a plan. With a plan, your actions all of the sudden are governed by design, and that design is probably at least marginally correct because it’s based on either the soundly-tested theories of other people or observations that are going to be true an overwhelming majority of the time.

I used Johnny Walker Red as an example, but my Legacy deck also exhibits many of these same qualities:

4 Brainstorm
3 Ponder
2 Peek
4 Nimble Mongoose
4 Tarmogoyf
2 Dark Confidant
4 Stifle
1 Spell Snare
1 Repeal
3 Survival of the Fittest
1 Wonder
1 Squee, Goblin Nabob
3 Ghastly Demise
1 Darkblast
4 Daze
4 Force of Will
4 Flooded Strand
4 Polluted Delta
1 Wooded Foothills
4 Tropical Island
4 Underground Sea
1 Island

1 Thoughtseize
1 Spell Snare
1 Dark Confidant
1 Threads of Disloyalty
4 Engineered Plague
2 Krosan Grip
1 Extirpate
1 Coffin Purge
2 Pithing Needle
1 Genesis

I had heard, and the format seemed, like it would

– Be defined by Threshold decks
– Be dependent upon the degree to which you could interact with your opponent on the first and second turns of the game
– Feature myriad and diverse linear strategies

In addition, I was told that most Threshold decks had 5-6 variable slots, and a lot of games were lost because an opponent would stabilize and you couldn’t get your bearls through the ground stall that had materialized. I suggested Survival to gain Tarmogoyf advantage and ensure a midgame win after two or three turns, Billy added Wonder, and thus a bunch of problems were resolved. Note that a lot of my earlier decklists were much uglier, but a series of five-or-ten-minute sets against myself on Apprentice quickly revealed what was objectively bad.

There’s the sideboard, too. When you don’t know what’s going on, don’t pretend you do. I knew that Survivals would be bad against many opponents, but I didn’t know what they’d try to do to me. I did know, though, that as long as I interacted with them and then dropped a Tarmogoyf there was a decent chance I’d win the game. So I crammed together as many cards as I could think of that could interact with the vast majority of opponents on at least some level. The sideboard got me infinite flack, but I’m actually quite proud of it. It doesn’t really matter much what you’re doing as long as you’re doing something, and when you can’t tell exactly what the metagame is going to look like the best thing is to give yourself options.

Along those same lines…

4) Maximize your blowout potential.

Red has Jaya, Siege-Gang Commander, and seven potential Wraths to ensure that some games are not even close. Threshold contains the full four Stifles and spells like Coffin Purge that, if you just draw them, are full-on good game against some decks. Occasionally – and often, if you’re in an underprepared situation – you’re going to have to get lucky to win. If you don’t have the tools to get lucky, though, the best topdecks in the world are for naught.

That’s all for now. I’m going to try and recover from my amazing night on an airport bench, send out the remainder of my final essays, and join y’all again next week for a deeper look at the ramifications of Worlds.


* Dragonstorm was obviously a surprise I couldn’t do much about