Constructed Criticism – Why We Fail

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Monday, May 11th – Luck does not exist. It is an illusion we use to mask our mistakes. We retell stories with epic endings where we fell just short of victory due to the presence of lady luck on our opponent’s side, but the truth remains that we as humans inherently create the errors that cause our opponents to “get lucky.” I try to tell myself this every time I sit down to play a match of Magic, but I struggle with it on a constant basis.

Luck does not exist. It is an illusion we use to mask our mistakes. We retell stories with epic endings where we fell just short of victory due to the presence of lady luck on our opponent’s side, but the truth remains that we as humans inherently create the errors that cause our opponents to “get lucky.” I try to tell myself this every time I sit down to play a match of Magic, but I struggle with it on a constant basis. Luck should not be the word that comes to mind when we win or lose.

All we can do as players is create the best environment possible that eliminates luck as a factor in Magic. Once two people have achieved this, it comes down to pure skill, including pre-tournament deckbuilding, mulligan decisions, and perfect play. Recently there have been a few professional players that have won tournaments back-to-back, including Gabriel Nassif, Tomohiro Saito, and Luis Scott-Vargas. Did they really get that lucky, or are they just that good? Their decks, as well as their play, gave them multiple wins in a row at the highest levels of competition, but this was not based on luck. When Magic players (including myself) learn to eliminate the word “luck” from their vocabulary, that is when we will flourish. Until that time, we will continue to make mistakes and call perfect opposing topdecks “lucky,” and keep wondering why we lost, even though we could have countered that spell earlier in the game, or saved that removal spell for a more relevant creature. The truth of the matter is that probability is a factor in most card games, but its effect can be reduced or even eliminated through practice and precision over time.

It should be the charge of every competitive player to find faults in their game, and do everything in their power to eliminate these faults. If a player is not constantly working towards bettering themselves, then they are doing something wrong. I am personally responsible for having done this for a very long time, and have recently come to realize the folly of my ways. With each game and match of Magic I play, I can usually see each mistake or misplay I make. Sloppy play and laziness are no excuse in a competitive tournament, or even in competitive playtesting. If you don’t make the effort to do something in practice, then what makes you think you will do it correctly when it counts?

Something I’ve learned from playing high-school sports is that practice is the most important thing you can do. However, practicing incorrectly is something that you absolutely cannot do if you want to succeed, and often will hurt your game. If you find yourself playing sloppily in testing, then you need to look at what you’re doing wrong and stop it immediately. Sloppy testing leads to sloppy play and bad habits, which lead to losses and attempts to place blame in places it does not belong. In a team sport, each person is responsible for their individual tasks , and doing something right doesn’t always reward in victory because you much rely on your teammates. However, in Magic there is rarely a team element, so doing everything correctly and intuitively can really pay off.

I hear a lot of people try to relate Magic and poker. They both have a lot in common, but people tend to blow things a bit out of proportion when relating one to the other. They are similar, but nowhere near the same. In poker (specifically Texas Hold ‘Em), there is a lot of luck involved, as well as skill, but you always have the option to fold at any point in a hand. If you feel as if you are behind in the hand: fold. If you feel like you’re going in the wrong direction or making a bad bluff: fold. In this respect, Magic is a bit more complicated. You can’t “just fold” in a game of Magic because each game is incredibly important to the outcome of a match. Sure, you can concede a game at any point, but folding a hand and conceding a game are two entirely different things. The only thing you can equate folding to in Magic is proper mulliganing. If you keep a bad hand, then that is the equivalent of calling with a mediocre hand in poker. It is also comparable that when you lose chips via folding, you are losing card resources via mulliganing. That doesn’t make folding a bad decision, nor does it make mulliganing a bad decision. Knowing when to cut your losses and waiting for a better spot is one of the most important things a Magic player can learn from poker.

Statistics play a huge role in Magic as well as poker. At any given time, your opponent can have any number of outs they can draw based on the number they have in the deck versus the number of draws you give them. In poker, that is usually limited to 5, but you can also use the cards that come onto the board. In Magic, the more turns you give your opponent to live, the more turns they have to draw out of the situation they have been put in. At other times, the same can be true for you. Making certain lines of play can ultimately lead to victory if your opponent doesn’t draw card X, while if they DO draw card X you are in a world of trouble. This can be put into better terms by comparing an aggressive deck overextending with pressure in order to limit the turns their opponent has to topdeck a Wrath of God. It is rarely the right play to overextend into a Wrath of God, but applying the correct pressure is generally the task of the aggressive deck, and finding the answer is the task of the control deck. If we learn to apply correct pressure in every situation as an aggressive deck, we have done our job. The same can be true if the control player does everything in their power to control the board long enough until they can draw their game-ending spell.

Statistical analysis is as much a part of everyday life (or should be) as it is in Magic. Each day there is a chance you will have a car wreck, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t going to drive to work today. In Magic, figuring out which set of statistics is relevant to you, as well as using them to your advantage, is something the best players in the game do consistently with fantastic results. Whether it be card choices based on winning decklists, matchup percentages based on a particular metagame, or how often you draw your two-of with no card draw, percentages can play a huge role in deckbuilding, metagaming, and even gameplay. There are a lot of things to consider when statistics are involved, and figuring out what is the best route in each situation and what is the wrong decision should be heavily influenced by probability.

Reading your opponent is a huge carryover from poker to Magic. If you can successfully read every card in your opponent’s hand, then you have them psychologically crushed. You know how to play around every trick, every removal spell, and every counter spell, while they have no knowledge (or limited knowledge) of your hand. Each turn both of you draw another card, so whoever has the most information about the other person’s hand (or library) has a distinct advantage. However, someone’s hand can be strictly better than yours and the information nullified via losing the game, but learning everything you can about your opponent should be your responsibility at every point in every situation. When you get to the point where you can logically determine the majority of the cards in your opponent’s hand, that is where you will start to excel where others fall behind. Figuring out what your opponent is going to do before they do it can be the difference between a win and a loss.

As players, we should aggressively try to be on the edge of technology, pushing each metagame forward with every tournament we play in. At each point in every game you play, the cards you decide to put in your deck should reflect your profound knowledge of the format as a whole, as well as your understanding of the decks you plan to face in the tournament. Playing with maindeck Wispmares and Cloudthreshers is ok if you have tutor effects and the format is dominated by Faeries, as it was in Lorwyn-Shadowmoor Block Constructed. However, this is not true for current Standard, and those cards should probably not be in your maindeck. With the release of each new set, there is a point of atrophy in a format that normal players can’t seem to see. It usually takes a large scale tournament to put a format into perspective before the masses know what is good and what is not good enough. When you reach the next level, you will be the one breaking formats and dominating tournaments before others really know what is going on.

Standard is currently in this position, with a multitude of tournaments on the horizon that are going to be shaken up by Alara Reborn. Truth be told, most people will show up with old, tried-and-true archetypes with a few new additions that may or may not be necessary. Things that are cool, shiny, and new are not always needed, and often should not even be included. Terminate is a great example of a card that probably won’t have a home in Standard as a maindeck inclusion. It is fairly difficult to cast in Five-Color Control, not a burn spell in a Blightning-based deck, and doesn’t fit the color combination of any other archetype at the moment besides the rarely played Jund Ramp. That being said, the card is fantastic in a vacuum, and will probably effect the format as a whole sometime in the future (or other formats), but playing Terminate in your Five-Color Control deck because it “does everything that Terror does not” will put a horrid stretch on your manabase, and should probably not get the include. None of the traditional filter lands can easily cast it, and pulling 2 counters off Vivid lands to play it seems woefully inefficient. It will probably see play in multiple sideboards as a handy way to deal with Doran or other problematic creatures, but it should have a signed attached saying “Danger: Avoid!”

One major topic I’ve largely avoided lately is the prospect of tilting. Tilt is a mental state that one goes into after suffering a loss or tragic incident, and continues to make mistake after mistake without realizing you are in such a state. Tilt is complicated. Usually when one enters “tilt-mode” they begin to make decisions that are not necessarily good for them or their game. I suffer from this on a level that most of you have neither seen nor even heard about. Poker is usually where tilt begins, but rarely where it ends. Every time I lose a match my tilt-meter goes up a little bit, and when I lose enough it reaches critical mass, almost like the star power meter on Guitar Hero. After a while, you just have to let it all out, or else you’ll just continue to make those mistakes. That being said, controlling your tilt is something we should all try to do to better ourselves, as well as the people around us.

In poker, the mistakes you make while on tilt are easy to discern. When one goes on tilt, they will begin to play aggressively, wildly, and generally in a losing fashion. The same is potentially true for Magic, but it is much harder to recognize someone who is playing Magic on tilt. If you watch closely, it usually creeps through their play, but rarely will you be able to see it without knowing what to look for. One who is on tilt and then loses will generally be more angry or aggressive towards their opponent, or say an off-color remark about their play skill or something similar. Just because someone is guilty of tilt does not make them a bad person. We all have our demons, and I sincerely apologize to anyone who has had to see mine. I am guiltier of this on Magic Online than in real life, because I like to think I have a bit of class when I’m at a real event. However, in the comfort of my own home I have definitely been one to throw poker chips or slam doors after losing a really tough match, not to mention say a rude thing or two to the opponent who defeated me. Last week I went on tilt during the tournament, and it showed in my writing. I was writing each match report directly after the match was over, and my inability to control my emotions let me say some things that I would rather have not. However, this is in the past and I’m looking forward. Even as I write this I feel like a different person. Being able to easily see places in your life where you constantly make mistakes so that you can fix them is somewhat inspiring.

One important thing to remember about Magic is that it is just a game. You shouldn’t take it so seriously that losing puts you into a different mood. Sure, we all love to win, but is that what is really important in life? Is winning at Magic the only thing that makes you happy? For a while I could have answered “yes” to both of those questions, or at least “yes” to Magic and poker. Life is full of reasons to love, hate, or to be angry, or happy. Magic is but one of those reasons, and you should always be looking forward to the next experience. If you dwell on the past, then you are doomed to repeat it. The key is finding the balance between the past and present, where you are able to recognize places that need improvement, but not constantly dwell on the areas where you have faltered in the past. Learning from mistakes and correcting them is what moves you forward.

After years of playing competitive Magic, I feel as if I have grown as person, and helped others grow around me. There is little or no bad blood between myself and the friends I’ve made playing Magic, and we have grown strong as a community. Growing your local Magic community is something we should all strive to do, because having better competition makes us become better ourselves. If your competition is repetitively weak, then your game will falter because of it. On top of that, Magic is a great way of meeting new people and gaining new friends. Personally, I’ve met my fiancée, my two closest friends, and countless other people playing Magic, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Magic is a game that can bring us together as a whole, or alienate others who refuse to join the circle. Those who live in the strongest of Magic circles tend to be the ones holding the trophies after each event.

In closing, I would just like to say that I hold no grudges. Take this as you will, but everything said here is with good intentions. I like to think that the people who read my articles do so in order to help better themselves at Magic, as well as people. I may come off as arrogant on occasion, but it is usually not intentional. If I have offended anyone over the past few weeks, I sincerely apologize, and hope you all continue to read and enjoy my work. We should all try to pick each other up, as well as try to build lasting friendships while slinging cardboard. After all, it is just a game… right?

Todd Anderson
strong sad on MOL
[email protected]