Feature Article – Mistakes Were Made

Today’s Feature Article looks at the bane of any Magic player’s life… avoidable mistakes. Chad shares two clear-cut game states in which he dropped the ball, and talks us through the thought processes behind each correct play. In order to banish such mistakes from our game, we must do more than identify such errors… we must try our best to eliminate them from future play.

One of the most fascinating subjects in Magic is that of player error — made fascinating primarily because of the mental gymnastics we all seem capable of making to avoid dealing with the fact that we make them at all — and indeed, make them in sweeping ways.

“I should have maindecked that,” or “I should have shipped that hand back” are the extent of what most players say about their errors. I’m not being snide either — that’s usually the most I say about my own errors, even to myself. At the same time, we can all tell stories about the times we’ve Jedi Mind Tricked someone into major strategic errors, or when we’ve played against someone who simply didn’t appreciate the nature of the position and thus played the wrong role or otherwise adopted a plan that was a strategic disaster.

Good thing we don’t make those mistakes ourselves, right? Right.

With that in mind, I thought I’d share a couple of games that I threw out the window. In one case I was probably losing anyway; in the other I found perhaps the only way to lose short of getting arrested. In both cases it would be easy to downplay the mistake to a single action — a decision to hold off on a spell in one case and a bad block in the other — but the real learning comes from looking at the source of the errors, not just how they manifested. My experience is that most preventable errors come down to mental laziness; mine were no exception.

The situation:

Opponent’s board:
Silhana Starfletcher, 1/1 Snake token, Enemy of the Guildpact, Mortipede, three cards in hand.

My board:
Azorius First-Wing, five cards in hand, including Supply / Demand, a land, and three powerful spells I couldn’t yet cast because of color issues.

My life total: 16.

I’d previously stolen my opponent’s only source of Green with a Vedalken Plotter (sadly not solving my missing Red problem), so his Mortipede was “just” a 4/1 for the moment. My draw this game had been awkward and I felt like I was going to need to take some risks to stay alive, which included waiting as long as possible before casting Supply for an army of tokens. At the moment I could only make five tokens, which was problematic since, if he got his Mortipede’s lure online, he could kill all but one token — leaving me with no answer to his Enemy.

With that in mind, I passed the turn rather than make five 1/1s. I figured if my opponent did an all-out attack I could trade First-Wing for Mortipede and then make six tokens, which would be enough to stall the board. If he just sent his pro-multicolored Enemy I’d still be at 12. If he held out for a source of Green I might have drawn an answer for Mortipede or at least with six 1/1s he’d have to leave me with two — enough to handle the Enemy.

What happened: My opponent killed my First-Wing with a removal spell and swung for ten, putting me at six. I made an army but he drew a Green source on his following turn and killed me by forcing my swarm to block his Mortipede.

The strategic decision to delay adding to my board is hard to call right or wrong — essentially it was a judgment call between the lesser of two evils. It was, however, tactically unsound and the main mistake, as I see it, was not doing the tactical analysis.

The math is fairly basic. My opponent had ten points of power on the table; if he removed my lone blocker he would put me at six. I would then be dead on the board to Forest — not exactly good odds.

Essentially, I was lazy. I knew my game was bad and weighed the possible outcomes assuming the board didn’t change. I neglected to consider what would happen if it changed in the most likely way possible — my guy dying. Sometimes things are sufficiently desperate that you have to assume that your opponent has nothing relevant (since if they do you’re dead anyway — I call this virtual information) but that wasn’t the case here.

When a game is at a critical juncture (or when you’re making a decision that could easily push it into one), it’s important to do the relevant tactical analysis. Doing nothing while behind on the board is sometimes the right call, but it should never be made lightly. It’s easy to think, “Well, I’m probably losing no matter what,” and just go with your instincts but in some cases — as with this one — that can be fatal.

The situation:

Opponent’s board:
Penumbra Spider, Spinneret Sliver, some Green 2/2, one card in hand, life in the teens.

My board:
Jedit’s Dragoons, Fathom Seer (flipped), Errant Ephemeron, Mangara of Corondor, life around 20, one land plus Pentarch Paladin in hand.

I’ve drafted one of the most absurd TSP decks known to man, and am in the semis of an 8-4 against a strong opponent. My deck features three each of Errant Ephemeron and Viscerid Deepwalker, a Riftwing Cloudskate, Fathom Seer, and Snapback in Blue, and Mangara, double Momentary Blink, and Pentarch Paladin in White, with nary a filler card in the deck.

I’d crushed my first-round opponent but lost game 1 in the second round when my opponent’s fast Sliver draw plus Strength of Numbers punished my mana-tight opener. Game 2 I’d routed him, using Mangara / Blink to destroy his key Slivers and then pounding him with flyers.

We’d both had good draws for game 3, with the result that I was well on the way to victory. I’d used Mangara twice with Blink plus flashback, and stabilized the board with Errant Ephemeron (just in off suspend), a flipped Fathom Seer, Jedit’s Dragoons, and Viscerid Deepwalker. His board was a Spider, Spinneret Sliver, and another Green Ogre.

I could have simply attacked with my Ephemeron; if he blocks with Spider and Sliver I just nuke the Spider with Mangara, and he’s on the critical list. My “control” instincts had kicked into overdrive, however, and I didn’t want to give him some mysterious out by using up my active Mangara.

Instead of attacking, I played out my Paladin set to Green. He had only one card in his hand, and not even Tromp the Domains would make a difference, since I was at a very comfortable life total (close to 20, I think), and I would simply remove one of his creatures from the game in response. On the next turn I would have two active creatures capable of destroying (or RFGing) any of his creatures.

He drew for his turn and alpha-struck.

There’s a good chance, in this situation, that this is just a last-hurrah before concession, but I took a bit of time before declaring blockers. Active Mangara meant that Strength of Numbers was irrelevant, and Thrill of the Hunt wasn’t really any better even though he could flash it back. Stonewood Invocation would let him kill one of my blockers and save his guy, or else do a decent chunk of damage to me. If he had Invocation I’d rather block his entire attack (keeping my Paladin out of it) and lose my Ephemeron; he’d lose his entire team (the Paladin would kill whoever the Invocation boosted once it was my turn) and I could finish him off easily. I thought about Fiery Justice but figured that I could block his attack in such a way that my Ephemeron and Paladin would both require three damage to kill, so he couldn’t take them both out.

By now, you can probably see where this is going.

I blocked the Spider with my Ephemeron, the Sliver with Dragoons, and his other 2/2 with my Deepwalker. They all died… and in his second main phase he blew up my world with Sulfurous Blast.

Pretty much any blocks I made other than the ones I actually did would have been superior. I could easily have afforded to take the six; if he still Blasts to get rid of the Paladin I remove his Spider from the game, and he’s left with nothing, while I still have a 4/4 flyer and the Dragoons. If he holds off, I bash back hard and on his turn I have active Mangara and Paladin plus my Dragoons on defense.

Instead the board was cleared for both of us… and he won the topdeck war that ensued. (He didn’t win it by nearly enough to have recovered from any sane blocks by me.)

Ultimately, this was another example of lazy thinking. I quickly ruled out the commons he might have and then started looking for clever rares. I skipped right over the uncommons and thus missed out on an obvious card to consider.

Taking a step back, is there another fundamental decision I made that should at least have been considered carefully and perhaps not made? Yep — I should have thought carefully before playing my Paladin. (I had a rather obvious and attractive alternate plan of attacking with a 4/4 flyer with Mangara backup, so it’s not like I needed to play the Paladin to put him on a very short clock.)

My board position was overwhelming and my life total was comfortable; meanwhile I had a 4/4 flyer my opponent had no good answer to. There was pretty much no way for him to reverse the board such that the Paladin would be too slow to turn things back in my favor; even if he managed to pull off eight or ten goblins he would remain in trouble, and that would require that his hand and the following two draws be pretty much perfect.

At the same time, I had exactly one meaningful card left in my hand — the Paladin. I played him without thought, sure that I was putting the final nail in my opponent’s coffin. It wouldn’t have surprised me if he drew for his turn and scooped with a comment like, “Nice deck,” or a more polite, “ggs, gl if you play out the finals.” My opponent, meanwhile, had access to RR and W; it was at least theoretically possible for him to answer my Paladin with Wrath of Guy.

When to add to a superior board position is a common judgment call. I’m not saying it was wrong to play out the Paladin just because one rare (requiring WW when my opponent had only shown me two Plains total in the entire match) would bust it — but playing out a game-altering bomb that is your last spell is worth at least a moment of thought.

The main point of all this is that it isn’t enough just to identify your mistakes and berate yourself for them. You need to look at the root cause of the mistake and then examine other games (especially ones that you won) for other examples of that root cause. You can auto-block your opponent’s desperate alpha strike and almost always win — but on rare occasions you will lose to something you could have foreseen and played around. Unless you recognize the underlying problems — in my case getting mentally lazy once the game seemed utterly in control and choosing “total control” with no resources in hand to “really good board” with a bomb in hand — you can’t expect to solve them.

Hugs ‘til next time,