This year’s U.S. National Championships was the worst tournament I’ve ever played. Not the worst tournament I’ve played in — to the contrary, the event was well set up and well run, and both the judging staff and Steve Port’s Legion Events team should be commended for it. Rather, my performance in the event was the worst I can ever recall. My record may not show it — I started 4-0, even, and I’ve certainly gone 0-x drop before — but I cannot recall any event in which I have played so poorly and made so many game-losing mistakes in my entire time playing tournament Magic.
At some point over the weekend, someone asked the hypothetical question “Why are there so many terrible Magic players who think they’re good?” The answer, I think, is a combination of true incompetence and ego. There have actually been studies that show that individuals who perform well below the average on various tests tend to vastly overestimate their own abilities — individuals who test in the 12th percentile estimating their abilities to be in the 62nd percentile, for instance. Seemingly paradoxically, as their actual performance on the tests improves, their perception of their own abilities decreases — their increased knowledge about the subject allows them to recognize their limitations. Additionally, they are less able to recognize competence when they see it, whether in themselves or others. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect, and I’m certain it’s in full force among Magic players who think the game is based largely on luck.
That’s the incompetence side. The analog in Magic, of course, is that players will go through games making any number of mistakes — some major, and some minor — and at the end of the game will have no idea that they played incorrectly. The ego steps in when they aren’t willing to accept that they might have made a mistake, or even if they think they might have they refuse to ask someone for their thoughts on it for fear of appearing foolish. Even worse, sometimes players will make mistakes and actually realize it at the time, but will compound their mistake further rather than reveal that they erred. For example, one time many years ago I was playing in a draft pro tour against Gary Wise, and I had Molimo, Maro Sorcerer in play. I had a land in my hand that I did not play before attacking with Molimo, and after combat — rather than reveal that I had made an error — chose not the play the land. The following turn I drew another land and played it before I attacked, and Gary blocked with two creatures and had a trick to exactly kill my Molimo. I lost that game because my ego wouldn’t let me reveal that I had made a mistake.
What is the point of all of this? Well, as I mentioned in the introduction, Nationals this past weekend was probably the worst tournament I’ve played in my life, and I like to think that I’m both good enough to realize my mistakes and not too prideful to admit to them. Of the eight matches I did not win, I made mistakes that likely cost me at least a game in at least five of them, as well as mistakes that did not cost me games in some games that I won. Some of these mistakes were errors in judgment, though many were simply due to lack of focus — I broke my own rules from my “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Gamers” article and stayed out on the town far too late after day 1 because I was frustrated by my results and it certainly cost me. So rather than writing a traditional tournament report, I’m going to take a look at the major mistakes I made over the weekend, discuss how they happened and how both you and I can avoid making them in the future.
The first big mistake came in round 5, the first round of the draft, and is what began the downward spiral that would last the rest of the weekend. I was playing a fairly powerful but clunky G/W/r deck, while my opponent — who had been sitting on my left in the draft — had a more evenly spread Naya deck. Neither of us had come out to a particularly blazing start. His board was a Dragonsoul Knight, a Court Archers, a Welkin Guide, and a Guardians of Akrasa to my Aven Trailblazer, Pale Recluse, and Wall of Reverence. I had just played my wall, which had brought me back up to 12 life. I had seven total mana in play, only one of which was White (and tapped to play the Wall), with Resounding Roar and Sigil Blessing in hand.
On my opponent’s turn, he thinks for a while and attacks with his Welkin Guide. I know that I passed two Soul’s Fires in the draft, though one was very early and it’s not clear that he would have taken it. I’m hesitant to block with my Pale Recluse, because if he does have a Soul’s Fire he can kill it and I no longer have a large creature to combo with my Wall to put the game away with life gain. If I get to untap with the Pale Recluse, I can just sit behind it with multiple Giant Growth effects and he won’t be able to punch through with anything as I gain a bunch of life. I decide not to block and die to a pair of Soul’s Fires.
Looking back at the play, it doesn’t make any sense for my opponent to make the attack he did if he has exactly one Soul’s Fire in hand. If that were the case, it would make sense for him to attack with Dragonsoul Knight, because even if I did have Resounding Roar, he could still kill my Pale Recluse with first strike (though he would have to commit his Soul’s Fire before I had to commit my Roar). I couldn’t figure out what the attack with the Welkin Guide meant exactly, but I should have realized at the very least that it didn’t mean exactly one Soul’s Fire. And even if I were trying to play around Soul’s Fire to keep my board intact, I should have blocked with the Wall of Reverence, since if he were to Soul’s Fire to kill it after the block I could Resounding Roar to keep it alive – and I would lose to a Giant Growth effect and a Soul’s Fire in combination anyway, so I have to block.
I talked to a number of other players about that attack afterwards, and while some people agreed with the way I played it, a number suggested the Wall of Reverence block as the safest “bluff caller” that preserves my board position and my life total pretty much regardless of what he has. In retrospect, I think that would have been the correct choice — not just because the way I played it lost the game, but because it was the play that had the best chance of matching up with whatever possible combination of cards he had given what I had. It’s important not to assume that a play is a mistake because it causes you to lose — the right play can lose sometimes where the wrong play wins, but that doesn’t make the plays any more or less right or wrong.
After losing that match, I lost the next after keeping a three-land hand in one game and discarding four times before I died — my opponent had a Vagrant Plowbeast on the battlefield before I had a nonland permanent — and the deciding game to Lavalanche. I pulled out my last match, but I was frustrated to have fallen from 4-0 to 5-2 when I felt like my draft deck was solid, and ended up staying out far too late that night drowning my sorrows, setting myself up for a day full of blunders on Saturday.
My boneheaded plays started in the second round of limited. I had a solid G/R base five color deck featuring Caldera Hellion, and my opponent was playing Esper. He plays an early Esper Battlemage, and I reveal Caldera Hellion off Gift of the Gargantuan, so we end up just trading hits back and forth between my Drumhunter and his Battlemage. He draws and plays a Ranger of Eos, finding two Court Homunculus, and I decide that I need to pull the trigger on my Hellion, so I play it and devour my Drumhunter. Of course, while I was paying attention to his Battlemage’s ability to shrink my Drumhunter if I attacked into it, it completely slipped my mind that he could use it to kill my 4/4 Hellion with the trigger on the stack. I had been holding an Intimidation Bolt in hand and could have used it to kill his Battlemage during his end step and kept my 4/4, but instead I was left with no board. Eventually the game comes down to a battle of attrition and he topdecks out of it better than I do, but if I had been paying attention I would have had a 4/4 in play rather than in my graveyard.
The next one was a doozy. In the last round of the draft, I played against Todd Anderson. He had a solid Grixis deck featuring quite a bit of removal, and I lost the first game to a turn 3 Shambling Remains backed up by multiple kill spells. The second game saw another aggressive draw from Todd, but I was able to wipe his board of Etherium Abomination and Shambling Remains with Caldera Hellion when I was at 8 life. He didn’t Unearth them right away, which would force me to chump block with my Hellion to stay alive — I suppose hoping that I’d forget they were in his graveyard and make a mistake by attacking without a way to survive, but I send in my Hellion with Path to stay alive. The next turn I draw Igneous Pouncer and attack him down to one, then Todd confidently says “Does that card in your hand have a mana cost?” and drops Siege-Mind Ogre on the table. I shake his hand and look at the top card of my deck before I realize he’s the one who was at one life, and I was actually at four, and the Singe-Mind Ogre would only drop me to one from the Soul’s Fire in my hand.
We called a judge and explained the situation — that we both had thought I was at one life, but in reality I was at four and the Ogre wouldn’t have been lethal. The judge listened to the story and ruled that I would get a penalty for looking at extra cards and we would continue the game. Todd appealed, and after explaining the story to the head judge, he overruled the floor judge and ruled that by shaking Todd’s hand and looking at the top card of my deck I was indicating my intention to concede.
I don’t have any problem with the ruling, nor with Todd’s judge call/appeal given the circumstances. I certainly did think that I was dead and the game was over simply because I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the game to realize that Todd’s mistaken belief that I was at 1 life was incorrect. I can’t think of another time in the many years that I’ve been playing this game that I’ve ever conceded with the win on board, but hey, there’s a first time for everything I suppose.
The next round was back to Constructed, and my first match was a Five-Color Control mirror. I actually played game 1 very well and outmaneuvered my opponent to ultimately beat him by decking. With only twenty minutes left going into the second game, I certainly was in no danger of losing the match, and after I had both Jace and Great Sable Stag in play in the early turns of game 2 and had drawn a counter with Baneslyer Angel already, it looked like it was going to be a smooth ride to victory. I used my only counter in hand to protect my Jace from Pithing Needle, which might have been somewhat questionable, but not strictly wrong with several additional draws to find one before my opponent got to Cruel Ultimatum mana, and sure enough I was left without a counter when he went for the big spell and had to discard my hand, including a second Great Sable Stag. I still had Jace in play, though, and off it drew Lilana Vess and immediately tutored. My opponent tried to use Esper Charm in my upkeep to force me to discard what I drew, but I’d fetched Cryptic Command, letting me counter/draw and then Jace/Lilana up an Ajani, which stuck. My opponent used Puppeteer Clique to steal a Baneslayer Angel from my graveyard and take out my Jace, and I kept his Clique locked down with Ajani to protect my other planeswalkers. We’re soon into extra turns, and my opponent plays out a Broodmate Dragon just before his last turn to attack. I’m at 13 life, and on my turn lock down his Puppeteer Clique and pass.
See my mistake? Well, I saw it as soon as I did it, but wasn’t thinking through all of the possibilities until it was too late. My opponent uses Cryptic Command at the end of my turn to bounce his own Clique, and replays it along with a second one to steal the pair of Great Sable Stags in my yard, dealing 14 damage to me. If I had used my Ajani to shoot my opponent rather than lock down his Clique, I would have gone up to 16 life, and my opponent’s Cryptic Command to bounce his Clique would not have gotten enough damage through to kill me.
My final mistake worth mentioning was in the next round, against an opponent playing Faeries splashing Red for Lightning Bolt and Anathemancer in the sideboard. I win the first game against a low action draw, and then in the second game my opponent has a turn 2 Bitterblossom. On my turn 3, I pass back with mana up for the Broken Ambitions and Plumeveil left in my hand, and when my opponent attacks, I ambush his Faerie token to kill it. Of course, he uses the opportunity to cast Jace.
Oh right, that. I’m forced to use my next few turns dealing with that Jace and the one he casts after I Volcanic Fallout the first away (and I wouldn’t have even had a chance if he’d gone on the cautious plan of having us both draw with the first use), when all I really needed to do was leave up my mana to Broken Ambitions and not get so excited about ambushing a single Faerie token with a Plumeveil. I narrowly lose that game, and then the next when my opponent’s Anathemancers come to play, when I had an excellent hand for game 2 and squandered it on my boneheaded play.
So what’s the point of this, other than publicly pointing out how foolish I am? I think there’s a few morals to this story. One is that focus in Magic is everything. If you’re not paying your utmost attention to the game at hand, how can you expect to beat someone who is? Whether it’s putting your mistakes or misfortune from previous rounds behind you or getting enough sleep, the most important thing you can do to improve your performance in a tournament is to put aside those things that can distract your attention from the game at hand. The second is that everyone makes mistakes, and if you think you don’t, it’s probably because you’re not good enough to realize you’re making them. You’ll never get better if you don’t talk to other players about what you’re doing wrong and listen to what they’re saying. I’ve heard countless players defend terrible play simply because they couldn’t admit the possibility that they might be wrong — don’t be that guy.
Despite the lows, I had a great time at Nationals, and my terrible performance was probably a good wakeup call that I can’t just come back after quitting Magic for four years and expect to just keep racking up good finishes. I still have a long way to go to get my game back in shape. I hope this article reminds you that you just might too.
Until next time…