Embracing The Chaos – Attitude is the Best Slump-Buster

Grand Prix: Oakland!

Thursday, January 21st – I started writing about Magic again last year, with the intention of exploding the myth that judges are bad players. It was intended mostly light-heartedly, but with the message that Judge-as-Player shouldn’t be so lightly discounted. It morphed into the mostly-EDH column that’s become Embracing the Chaos, but I’d like to return occasionally to the roots of the idea…

I started writing about Magic again last year, with the intention of exploding the myth that judges are bad players. It was intended mostly light-heartedly, but with the message that Judge-as-Player shouldn’t be so lightly discounted. It morphed into the mostly-EDH column that’s become Embracing the Chaos, but I’d like to return occasionally to the roots of the idea.

One of the demonstrable ways I thought of to prove my point was to go infinite at my local FNM. As you might have heard me say before, Armada Games in Tampa’s normal FNM crowd is no easy gauntlet. It regularly features players in the Bay area’s Top 25 in Constructed, such as Conrad Jackson (him of the 2025 rating), Kitt Holland, Dean Kruse, fellow Team Lives-in-the-Red Zone member Brennan DeCandio, Matt Cross, and Jon Lum. Making Top 8 at Armada’s FNM is no easy task, so I thought that going infinite (meaning earning enough in winnings, which are paid to Top 8 based on attendance, to never again have to pay the entry fee), seemed like putting enough of a stamp on saying “Okay, I’m not terrible.”

Now that Armada has also started running Wednesday Night Standard, I have even more opportunity to hone my play skills. Armada runs a fair number of sanctioned events each week, so I have the chance to pick and choose what I’m going to play, and I can’t play them all. I generally have to pick two from Wednesday Night Standard, Thursday EDH League (which I’ll talk about more in a while), and FNM. The interesting part about Wednesday is that the crowd is smaller—but much more serious. It’s where the top players come to test out their ideas in a live setting, so one can expect to see a fair amount of innovative tech (like Robert Cone’s Mono White Allies) and not the same series of decks that you’d expect to run into at FNM (meaning a pile of vanilla Jund). There actually seems to be a trend toward “Popular deck with a twist.” The Wednesday crowd is tough enough where it’s a win just to survive.

Toward the end of last year, I was doing fairly well when I managed to have the time to play. I think I Top 8’d 6 out of 7 times or so at one stretch. I mostly played aggressive decks, which are my preferred style, and then when Jund came around, I was in heaven. I actually see it as a different kind of control deck, but that’s another discussion for another time. I know everyone is really tired of writing and reading about Jund, so I’ll move along. I started thinking to myself “This is easy. If I’m doing this well with a partial effort, if I put some time into it, I could dominate!”

Just as I’m thinking I’m going to get my rating to 2000 just by playing FNM, I run into a streak of mediocrity. 1-1-1, 2-2, that kind of thing. Finally, the week before last, 0-2 drop at FNM, with a five-color creature deck based on Manuel Bucher article of January 6. I hate my manabase, I hate this, I hate that. I go back to the drawing board and re-brew. I show up early Wednesday night, excited about the possibilities. I play nearly a dozen practice matches with Matt Cross and other TLitRZ member Todd Palmer. I get crushed in all of them.

It brings me around to a lesson that I’ve learned in life: The times in life when we screw up the worst are the times when we think the best of ourselves.

Clearly, we’re never as good as we think we are when we’re at our best, nor are we as bad as we think we are when we’re at our worst. In finding a great spot somewhere in the middle, a little humility will go a long way.

External humility (when not coupled with internal humility) is just public relations. The guy with the 2000 rating that says “I’m not that good” is lying, and I’m not a fan of the false humility. Internal humility – real, deep-down self-assessment – will keep you honest with yourself, will point you in the direction you need to go to improve and be better at what you’re trying to be better at, even if that thing is just being a human being.

After getting roundly thrashed in those pickup games, I actually considered packing up and going home. But I really wanted to play some Magic. I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy playing the deck that I had brought, so that was right out. Fortunately, I had in my bag the remnants of the Jund deck that I had taken about a dozen of cards out of for the new deck. I decided to re-assemble the deck with a tweak or two, and see if it could be a slump-buster.

Instead of thinking “I need to win,” I concentrated my efforts on simply playing well. Strangely enough, when I cleared my mind of the end result, I found myself thinking more clearly, making smarter decisions, and able to better concentrate. It’s trite to say that “Attitude is everything,” but there’s a strong message there nonetheless. The trick is not choosing an attitude and sticking with it through thick and thin, it’s choosing the right attitude. Providing yourself with the right mindset before going in allows you do to what you need to do.

Often, we look at the bigger picture (“win”) instead of the elements that go into assembling that picture (play an appropriate deck, make good mulligan choices, etc.). Focusing on the individual elements of play will bring about the desired result, instead of the other way around. This is where the attitude comes in.

I’m still not sure whether it was my improved focus and play that helped so much as the deck choice (I’ll confess that sometimes the deck simply wins; I’ve previous mentioned that I’m just the guy that gives the deck a ride to the tournament), but it was a good week. I swept both Wednesday and Friday, chopping with the aforementioned Todd both times. We simply drew on Wednesday, although we then played it out for funsies and I won in two. On Friday, we split the cash and played for the glory, and I won in three games. In fact, I won game 3 on the draw with an opening hand of six lands and a Bloodbraid Elf, surviving Turn 3 Blightning, Turn 4 Mind Rot. I had also played Todd in round 1 and won, making my record in the mirror (or mirror-like) match 4-0.

In case you haven’t seen enough Jund decks, here’s mine:

I really like the Gatekeepers (in fact, they’re the only real answer to Sphinx of the Steel Wind), but they change the way you play a little. I almost never want to cast Bloodbraid without Black and/or Red mana up (the maindeck Ruinblaster has paid quite some dividends), which means waiting until turn 5. I’m finding that the more I play the deck like a control deck, the better it becomes. Feels kinda squicky to me, since I really love the Red Zone. Of course, I also like Chandra’s ultimate ftw, which I pulled off against the Runeflare Trap deck.

I know that this deck is coming to the end of its lifespan. I might stick with it through the first few weeks of after Worldwake becomes legal, but great decks are often only great because of the environment they’re in. The Standard environment isn’t staying static, and Worldwake will likely cause quite a further shakeup. The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth.

The next iteration of Armada Games starts tonight. I’m happy that I’ve seen a number of new EDH players around the shop, but I’m a little concerned because I’ve see a fair number of the Spikier decks (Azami, Rofellos, Zur, Jhoira, et al). I’m hoping to avoid the league turning into an all-out-competitive, someone-always-comboing out early slugfest. I know owner Aaron Fortino has added nearly 70 new points awards to the list and will be choosing only a third of them at random to be in play for each week. I actually think that hurts the casual guys a little more than helps, since the Spikes know that the Timmies can’t count on piling up points in any particular fashion. We’ll see how it works out. I intend to start with Kresh, since I haven’t played much EDH since the last league ended – although I did manage to squeeze in an epic game last week before FNM. I used Phelddagrif to keep the Reaper King player alive, and he ended up killing me, but not before I killed the Rith player with Phelddagrif General damage while he was near 100 life. And that after surviving him attacking us both with a dozen tokens after squeezing off Titanic Ultimatum (Holy Day to the rescue!). I hoping things stay friendly and I can avoid going the Vicious Shadows and Obliterate routes, but I guess only time will tell. Until then, I’ll just have to Embrace the Chaos!