Feature Article – Creating a Fearless Magical Inventory

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During a draft, an argument about a play broke out, and my roommate flat out told me I was terrible and had no right to question any plays. I told him that once he fixed the holes in his game, he could talk to me about mine. He quipped about how he didn’t have any holes in his game. This clearly isn’t true… but was I being that blind? Was my own need to act like I was perfect actually hindering my ability to get better?

I recently felt like my game had come to a screeching halt. I took the greater part of the last year off from playing tournaments and playing seriously because I was finishing up my undergrad degree and I wanted to focus on that. Understandable, and admirable, I think. Finally getting that out of the way (it only took the greater part of a decade), I returned to the tournament scene no longer worrying about those pesky classes. Only one problem: I really sucked. It is hard to believe what eight months away from the game can do to your skills. Over that time they had atrophied, and my unwillingness to accept that that only lead me to continue to get worse and worse. I refused to see that, though. That would be admitting that I am no longer a “good player,” that somehow I had returned to the ranks of chumps.

A little background… In the past two and a half years I have made Top 8 at nine PTQs, won six, attended six Pro Tours and cashed at four straight GPs, including one 9th place. Not quite Hall of Fame contention, but still, I understandably felt good about this. A little too good. One might even say cocky. Clearly I was playing well, but I let going from making a one or two PTQ Top 8s a year to bashing PTQs and having some small success at the professional level go to my head. In my mind, I was at the height of my game and unstoppable. If that were true, I would be talking about all the PTs I won, not about all the PTQs. The fact is I was playing the role of a big fish in a little pond and having a blast at it. I had begun playing well and continued to succeed on my momentum alone. I stopped trying to get better, because I was already there. Perhaps the best thing that could have happened to me was this downturn, because it forced me to look harder at how I was playing.

After losing time and time again at the Lorwyn prerelease, going around 4-9, I blamed the set and bad packs. At States, I ran GB elves to a 2-2 finish. My final match of the tournament was against a player who I would have described as very inexperienced. Whether that is true or not, or if it was just my arrogance, I’m not sure. He was playing RWu snow (a deck I felt was terrible) and had won the first game based on what I thought of as my own bad luck – my mana flood. During the final game, I had gotten him to a low life before he had two Epochrasites (with counters) and a Brion Stoutarm out. During my upkeep, when I tried to get him to randomly discard a card with Nath of the Gilt-Leaf using a die, but he prevented me from rolling and showed me the two Brion Stoutarms in his hand, discarding one. So I had perfect information at this point in the game. He was at three, I should have had out just about enough to kill him… so I began counting. I had a Eyeblight’s Ending in my hand, and I could kill Brion Stoutarm before he could gain life… but if I attack with everything, and he throws a Epochrasite at my Nath of the Gilt-Leaf before damage, I might be off be one or two. If I just straight Eyeblight’s Ending it, then he can throw itself at my Nath of the Gilt-Leaf, and I am just as far behind. I thought for a second — I had to either prevent him from gaining life, or I needed to do more than he could deal. I played the Elvish Harbinger in my hand to put an Imperious Perfect on the top, and decided to lock it up for next turn. He drew his card, threw an Epochrasite at me, and cast Wrath and the other Brion Stoutarm. After the game, I angrily dropped and started thinking about how lucky my opponent had gotten. He had four cards in his deck that win him the game there. He had maybe a 10% chance to win… how lucky. In the back of my mind, though, I knew I hadn’t played the game right. I knew that I made a mistake. A few actually:

A) I didn’t read Brion Stoutarm. If I had, I would have known that he couldn’t throw an Epochrasite at my Nath of the Gilt-Leaf, and he certainly couldn’t throw Brion Stoutarm at my Nath of the Gilt-Leaf, or anywhere for that matter. That isn’t how the card works. Rather than reading his card and making sure of what it did, I chose to try and look smart. I am a pro, I know what every card does.
B) I had perfect information and chose not to use it. Beyond just thinking that he could throw his Epochrasite at my Nath of the Gilt-Leaf, I didn’t figure out how the rest of the blocks could go, when I could best cast Eyeblight’s Ending, and how I could win that turn. It’s possible that I couldn’t have won that turn, but I chose instead to give him outs instead of doing some really hard thinking.
C) I decided that my opponent’s deck was bad, mine was good, and that alone entitled me to win. This is the wrong way to think about it. Instead of having to play well, I just had to let my superior deck play for me. I waited for victory rather than attempted to earn it.
D) I decided my opponent was worse than me, and I always assumed he would play poorly. I waited for him to throw the game away to me. I didn’t try and make the right plays, I just assumed he would make the wrong ones.

Should I have won that game? I’m not sure. Could I have? Probably. It is so easy to allow myself to bemoan my bad luck, but the truth, which I didn’t want to admit, was that I blew it. I could tell everyone my opponent topdecked the Wrath, which is true, but the fact is that I LET HIM. That was my fault and my fault alone. I didn’t let this setback defeat me, though. I thought back to the situation over and over again, and I tried to figure out why I did what I did, and what I can do in the future to not let it happen again.

A few days later during a draft, an argument about a play broke out, and my roommate flat out told me I was terrible and had no right to question any plays. I told him that once he fixed the holes in his game, he could talk to me about mine. He quipped about how he didn’t have any holes in his game. This clearly isn’t true. The person in question has one of the worst mulligan phobias I have ever seen, doesn’t know the rules, and doesn’t know what most cards in Standard, let alone Extended, do. Was I being that blind as well? Was my own need to act like I was perfect actually hindering my ability to get better?

I took a long hard look at my game and I began to list the things that I secretly knew I was doing wrong. It was a very hard process to admit that I was doing things wrong, even to myself, but that was part of my problem. Everyone makes mistakes but very few people own up to them. I wanted to stop lying to myself and stop lying to others. I wanted to take my ego out of the equation and focus on playing better Magic for myself, not to impress others or to be thought of as good. I wanted to get start doing well again, and a lot of that meant I was going to have to admit to myself that I was not the perfect player, and that I had more than a little room to improve. I had already take the first step — admitting that I was not playing perfectly. The second step was to realize that I had the ability to change it. The third step was to make a conscious decision to improve my game and to stop pretending I was a better player than I really am. The fourth step was creating a fearless magical inventory. After some soul-searching, I posted on both on the Internet. I knew that with the knowledge of my problems public, I would no longer be able to deny them to myself or others. Remove your ego from the equation, and you have room to improve your game. Here is what I posted originally:

1) I shuffle very poorly (a reverse bridge) that tends to damage cards and cause clumps. Because of this, I tend to not shuffle as much as I should between games and I almost never my opponent’s deck. This leads to both decks being less randomized than they should optimally be.
2) I choke under high pressure situations. I make plays that are far riskier in order to end the situation as soon as possible.
3) My mind wanders in the middle of the game when the board has become “stalemated.” I wait for an overwhelming advantage to try and give my opponent too much time to draw something.
4) I play faster than I should, leading me to doing things like forgetting to play a land before my attack, or playing the wrong land. Or attacking with the wrong creatures, or a million other buffoon-like actions.
5) I keep hands that are risky solely based on the fact that I won the first game and “I can afford to lose one.”
6) I do not playtest enough, or at all, with sideboard, and do not generally know how to sideboard correctly in specific matchups.
7) When my opponent is getting ahead, I allow myself to get into situations in games that I do not know how to or cannot possibly get out of. I do this because of my fear of making a wrong play. Instead, I choose to make safe plays and get in to a situation where I am drawing dead.
8) I overvalue rares in Limited.
9) I put my opponent on a specific trick for most of the game, then I tell myself “If he has it, he has it” when I get tired of playing around it.
10) When winning in a game, I get over confident and allow myself to play in to my opponent’s outs – whether that be overextending, or using my removal needlessly to keep the beatdown train rolling.
11) I forget most of the cards I pass in Limited right after I pass them. I tend to only remember the big flashy one. This leads to not knowing that I am sending misleading signals, then being surprised when I am fighting the person next to me for a color. Also a nightmare in team drafts.
12) I do not pay enough attention to my opponent. If they want to cheat, they could probably get away with it. I assume they are honest.
13) I think I know what cards do (especially new ones) and I don’t always read them.
14) I tell myself that my bad play didn’t matter, because I would have lost anyway. Even if I know that isn’t true.
15) I tap my mana wrong (the classic Moreno) and tell myself it’s not a big deal. Even when I end up unable to cast a spell due to it.
16) I am overly confident when playing people I know, or people who I believe are worse than me. I am under confident when playing people I don’t know, or people that I believe are better than me.
17) I do not spend enough time examining all the possible blocks in a combat situation, and only take into account the one I would do, which is not always the correct one. This leads to combats going horribly awry when I miss something minor.
18) I have card/color biases that result in me drafting the same deck over and over again, and ignoring other good decks that are available at the table due to personal bias. When my favorite deck is not available, I often end up with a real mess.
19) I overvalue my first few picks of a draft. I will not switch an overly contested color until it is too late.
20) I lie to myself after losing and pretend that I could have done nothing. I don’t even try and examine the game.
21) I play flashy and neat decks instead of good ones, even when I know they are not very good.
22) I counterspell irrelevant things because I don’t want to think several turns ahead to decide if that spell is actually important or not.
23) I will play around a combat trick, then get tired of that and play into it. Again, “well, if they have it they have it.” Whether or not they actually have it is irrelevant. I have to choose one course of action and stick with it.
24) I over value specific cards in play and do not play around my opponent’s removal.
25) I play the creatures in my hand from most powerful – least powerful, allowing my opponent’s removal the optimal efficiency.
26) I scoop prematurely.
27) I allow my opponents to do what they intended to do, not what they said they are doing in REL 3+ events.
28) I allow problems that should be resolved by a judge to be resolved without one.
29) If I am about to win, I ramp up to a blazing speed and forget about mandatory upkeep effects.
30) I go to tournaments hoping I can win, not knowing that I will.
31) I tell myself that mistakes I make in games that I win are less important and I do not focus on what I could have done to fix them.

The response was overwhelmingly positive about the whole idea. People posted about how they did many of these too, or how they have personally managed to overcome a number of the problems on this list. After several days of discussion I had a plan of action to attack many of the problems on my list. To fix my shuffling problems, I began ritualistically doing two 7-card pile shuffles between normal side shuffles both before and after games/mulligans, and doing one 7-card shuffle with a side shuffle for my opponent’s deck between games as well. I don’t know how much more random this has made either of our decks, but I feel much better about it. I have also slowed my game down a lot. I realized the root of my problem here was that I identified “good” players as people who played fast and “bad” players as people who played slow. Clearly this is not true, but it was a mental block that I had to fix. Sort of like my “good players don’t have to read cards — they know what they all do” mental block. To solve my issues with counters, I put together a copy of standard Pickles on Magic Online and I have began playing it first in the Tournament Practice room, and then in the 8-man queues. A number of my problems have also been fixed by spending 15 seconds before each attack phase laying out the possible blocks and trying a few combinations. I used to think that this was giving my opponent too much extra information, but it is information he has anyway — or at least he will when I finally announce my attackers. I might as well take a few seconds to prevent myself from running a horde of my guys to their doom.

I posted the list a month ago, and here are the immediate changes that I have seen in my own game: On the Magic Online front, I’ve gone from a 1600 to a 1770 Constructed rating. I’m still down on tickets from what it took for me to purchase the deck, but the playing has led me to improving my game tremendously. I am getting to know the Standard metagame, getting heavy Constructed practice, and thinking much more fluidly about the role of sideboards and counterspells. On the paper Magic front, I managed to Top 8 three Sealed PTQs in a row, two of them eight rounders where I went 6-0-2. After almost seven months without making a PTQ Top 8, that was a huge relief. Glad to see I still have it in me. I still haven’t won one yet, but knowing when I walk in to the room that there are only seven other slots for it feels good.

Could this recent success be coincidental? Possibly, but I don’t think so. Not exactly. Three PTQ Top 8s and a good run on Magic Online may not be much, but it is a start. I’m a long way from making a Pro Tour Top 8, but at the very least my confidence in my game, and therefore my ability to succeed, is through the roof. I now go in to tournaments feeling not only that I can win, but that I will win. When I lose, I don’t simply bemoan my own bad luck, I look back at the game and try and figure out what I could have done differently. I no longer feel like I am at the mercy of the luck of the game — I feel like I am in control of it. When I do something wrong, I write it down so I can try and prevent myself from doing it in the future. I add it to my list

Creating my list wasn’t about magically fixing all of my problems — I will probably never be able to do that. It was about admitting that I have room for improvement, and figuring out ways to get better. It was about knowing what I am doing wrong so I can try and stop doing those things in the future. I don’t expect to ever totally clear my list off – that would be arrogant and foolhardy. If anything, I expect the list to grow over the course of the next year. Ideally, for each item I cross off, I want two to replace it. As the list increase in size, so does my understanding of the game, and the number of things I’m doing right. Each addition is another item that I am taking control over. I think Bill Stark said it best — Magic is a game of inches. I want to inch forward.

Sam Stoddard
samtoddard at gmail dot com
samstod on aim.