FINAL JUDGEMENT: So You Wanna Be a Pro?

Since he’s thinking of ways to transform The Editor from an experienced scrub into a novice pro, Sheldon just decided to share his wisdom with you. Look out!

If you’ve been reading Star City lately, you’ll know that our own Ferrett has made it his mission to qualify for the Pro Tour. For Ferrett (as well as others), this is a long, long road. Slots are few and far between for non-gravy trainers, and there are piles of other folks who want to derail your chug into the PT station – because they want to go, too.

Ferrett’s been playing a good deal lately in order to improve his Drafting and Limited deckbuilding skills as well as his game play (he’s trying to qualify for a Limited Pro Tour; you’ll have to read his entire article to find out all the details). Here in Anchorage, we’ve put aside our Friday night multiplayer games about two weeks out of three so that we can help our friend (as well as ourselves) try to move into the ranks of the Magic elite. Just two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to play one-on-one against him for the first time, in a Booster Draft (strangely enough, in all the tournaments in which we’ve played together, we’ve never matched up). I then played him again this past week in a Sealed Deck event. What I noticed was that, as a Magic player – I won’t go into the other aspects of his glorious individuality, but trust me, there’s no one remotely like him – Ferrett is like many other inexperienced players. (Everything he says about me here is 100% true, folks, but remember that Sheldon’s definition of "inexperienced" is "inexperienced by PRO standards." I know all of the rules. I abuse the standard tricks. I design fine decks. By the standards of most casual games, I am one of the more experienced players… So if you rock your casual house but suck at tournaments, pay careful attention here. These could be YOUR problems – The Ferrett)

It struck me that there is a successful player mindset, an approach to the game that is either learned through repetition/exposure or that a person might innately have. Here we arrive at this week’s column.

My intention is not to beat up our editor and my friend (that’s just a side benefit!). Ferrett is smart and creative; I have no doubt that he will turn out to be one of our area’s strongest players. I want to help him do that – and while I am, I can help some of you, too. Not everything here is something that he’s done; the few things that he has simply called to mind some of the other things that I have seen hold back otherwise promising players.

The first and major point is that inexperienced players don’t try to win, they try to not lose. This is the wheel around which most everything else revolves. This must be unlearned, and quickly. The habit manifests itself in a multitude of ways; space demands that I limit the number of examples.

In deckbuilding, it shows itself in trying to do everything. Good, tight decks are focused toward their win condition(s). Throwing some random enchantment removal or playing an endless game of "What if my opponent is playing Sausage Golems?" end up making bloated, ineffective decks. To overcome this, study some popular decks and see how they win. Look at why those decks are, or were, successful. Sometimes it’s the card pool (Bloom), sometimes it’s the metagame (Turbo Stasis, or Kibler’s deck at the last PT Chicago). Analysis of why decks win – and how they lose – is the key. I am not suggesting playing the latest, hottest deck. I’m suggesting figuring out why it’s hot in the first place. The ‘net is easily the best resource for this research; you need look no further than Star City to find some of the best deck analysis around.

Trying to not lose is more likely to show itself in play. The experienced player will know when to go for the throat; the inexperienced will hesitate. I was in a game recently where a player had three cards in his hand and a Meteor Storm on the board. I was at eight life, and there was a relative creature stalemate, with nothing particularly big and frightening on the board. I announced the end of my turn. My opponent chose not to use the Storm on me during my End Phase and then again after he drew his next card (to kill me), but to take out a creature instead. It was meaningless and gave me an opportunity to get back in the game. I didn’t… But the point is that I was left with the chance. In order to win, you have to reduce your opponent’s luck factor as much as you can. When you have the advantage, press it without over-committing. Keep the opponent on the ropes.

(What Sheldon kindly doesn’t mention here is that said player was also me… And I finally figured out what had happened from looking at my notes. I had him listed at nine life, having forgotten to record a point of damage that I had done to him! I didn’t even realize that I could have Stormed him that turn for the game, and my mistake could very well have cost me. So another hint for you all: Play to win, but also make sure to KEEP CAREFUL TRACK OF YOUR OPPONENT’S LIFE TOTAL – The Ferrett)

The second point is tunnel vision. Inexperienced players will focus only on part of the game (this is most prevalent in junior players). That focus is generally limited to their own permanents and hand, although sometimes they focus on what’s in play, ignoring what they’re holding (as strange as that may seem). Other times, it’s not thinking through the possibilities of the cards on the board. We recently had a player miss the continued creature kill combo of Nightscape Apprentice/Shivan Emissary until someone pointed it out to her (after the game was over, of course).

Winning Magic is a game of thinking through many possibilities. That means considering hidden information, whether it’s in your deck, your opponent’s hand, or your opponent’s deck. Not only must you think about what the cards can do by themselves, you must think about what they can do in concert with other cards that are in play or likely to be in play. If you have no other enchantment removal, you might want to think twice about blocking with your Capashen Unicorn; on the flip side, trading two cards for your opponent’s only Protection from Red creature against your mostly-red deck seems like a good idea.

It’s also a game of increasing your own luck factor. There was a great article on the topic in The Duelist many moons ago by Randy Buehler, my personal friend since 1958 (a marvelous entertainer and a great humanitarian*). The basic idea of the article is that if it looks like you’re going to lose anyway, throw caution to the wind and (intelligently) maximize your chances of getting lucky – sacrifice permanents to draw cards, discard long-term advantages for the short-term, whatever might give you the chance, regardless of how slim, to pull one out of the fire. If your desperate move doesn’t work, you’ll only end up where you were going to be anyway. Did you ever notice how the best players also seem to be the luckiest? Now you know one of the reasons why.

The third and final point is developing the ability to take criticism. Fortunately, Ferrett excels at this; he even seeks it out, making him, from my view, rare among his Magic peer group. He makes notes when he screws up. He asks for open discussion of the games he’s just played. He’s interested in reviewing his Sealed Deck choices afterward. He sets his ego aside (sacrificing short term gain) to help him learn the game better (to obtain long term gain). This frame of mind is what’s going to turn him into a good player. He’s not interested in winning; he’s interested in getting good. He realizes that once you’re good, the winning will take care of itself. Most other players I see just expect to win because western culture has inured them with this "even if you’re lousy, you’re good" attitude; they don’t expect to have to work hard to be rewarded, they just expect the rewards. I’ll move on before I start channeling Dennis Miller.**

Ferrett’s goal is an interesting one: Go from anti-competitor to qualifying for the Pro Tour. To do it, he, like most inexperienced players, must unlearn self-defeating mindsets, broaden his scope of vision and constantly seek ways – conventional and otherwise – to improve his game. I, for one, hope he succeeds, because I know that I’ll have been at least some small part of that success.

And that’s my Final Judgement.
Sheldon K. Menery

* – First person to email me ([email protected]) identifying the reference gets a special card signed by all the participants at the First Multiplayer Invitational, taking place the day before Pro Tour LA.

**- Or Rizzo. Really. Don’t get me started.