Sadin and I actually went over my entire tournament playing career for fun – actually it was more of an argument / dressing down – one night when we went to Plataforma and decided that I win about 1/9 PTQs that I play in. I don’t know if that is a good ratio or not; possibly it is good because I’ve won a fair number of PTQs, but probably it’s embarrassing because I think I’ve played in a total of three PTs where I didn’t have to win a PTQ to be invited.
Anyway, I recently read / re-read a quote from Tim Aten about winning PTQs so I decided to take a stroll down memory lane to see how any of my PTQs stacked up in terms of why I won. Tim’s quote (originally from a Kyle Sanchez article):
1) It’s just “your day”… you’re an at least reasonable player and you just happen to bring you’re A-Game that day, little bit of luck, etc.
2) You just outpower the field by so much between your playskill and deck choice that it’d be hard for you to lose.
The problem with Tim’s position, from my perspective anyway, is that nothing about it is actionable. What is the takeaway? You win when you’re destined to win? The second element is closer to something that you can actually put into practice, but honestly, I can’t imagine anyone winning a PTQ on playskill – not truly – and I certainly never have, despite winning more PTQs than pretty much anyone that Kyle interviewed (on second thought, maybe not everyone, and twenty?! Definitely not Tiago).
Billy: “You’ve just got to feel like you’re the best player in the room.”
Gadiel: “By proving mental, physical, and moral superiority in comparison with other top mages in your area.”
Scott McCord taught me some similar. I was in an International House of Pancakes in (I think) Orlando, FL about 2001. Paul Jordan had tricked me into flying to U.S. Nationals despite not being qualified. In a Limited Grinder (the only Grinder I was able to play in, due to doing too well and giving my Standard deck to Matt Rubin who played just long enough to keep me out of the last Grinder) I got a great sealed deck with Hunting Drake, Flametongue Kavu, Urborg Volcano, and Salt Marsh (you’ll note I was also the correct colors). I probably would have qualified without losing a game… Except one round Thomas Pannell didn’t use the loudspeaker to announce the next round. I was actually forty minutes into jawing with Randy Buehler and Jeff Donais “between rounds” when I finally asked Jeff what was taking so long with the next round… Oops. Six or eight people got booted that round thanks to no loudspeaker; ironically, I had been standing next to Thomas and his boss the entire time. Awkward.
So anyway, I was in IHOP with Scott McCord, despondent over not qualifying. I cannot stress how easy qualifying would have been. Playing that deck against whatever pretender was across the table felt like something you would go to hell or at least jail for, like eating delicious food that is going to give you are heart attack the mana was so good. I hate lost opportunities more than anything (see the summer of 2000, below). I had about four games to go until invite time. Have you ever played with Flametongue Kavu in Constructed? Playing with it in Limited is kind of like that, except you kill a 4/4 for five instead of a 2/2 for two. Hunting Drake is even worse, believe it or not. I’ve beaten FTK with White cards more than once, but I think over an entire year of playing Invasion Block, I only ever beat a resolved Hunting Drake in one solitary game.
So anyway, I was all crying in my cereal. Scott always has something to say. A lot of my Magic worldview, for good or ill, was sculpted by Scott, who was an absurdly tight player and completely no-nonsense (if a bit myopic about certain things regarding deck selection that he saw as empyrical but I didn’t / don’t). I told Scott that I was done and that I was probably never going to play in another Pro Tour. Blah blah blah. Scott told me that he enters every single tournament with the unshakable belief that he is actually going to win it. It’s almost a moral value for him. There is no other reason to play in a tournament; I adopted that attitude and now really and truly agree with this, which is why I am sometimes perceived to be arrogant about Magic.
To the best of my experience, you have Have HAVE to approach the game with the mentality that it is your divine right to win the tournament if it is your goal to win the tournament. I’ve written before about mercy. Mercy is doom to the serious tournament player. You think Aegon the Conqueror wrested control of the Seven Kingdoms by being a merciful liege? The guy – Conqueror, rather – and his two b*tch sisters had massive air superiority and a simple outlook: bend the knee or my dragon roasts you and the horse you rode in on. What about Michael Jordan? He could be up 20 points in the fourth and that tongue wagging bastard would still put up a fadeaway three… ’cause mise. Merciless. Absolutely. Unbeatable. Technology. What about Jon Finkel? Does anyone else remember the quote “You could at least make it look close”…? I was pumping my fist and jumping out of my seat in the first row and even I felt bad for Benafel, whom all the oddsmakers had winning the tournament, as he fell 0-3 in the money match; 0-2/0-5 in both meetings.
This part is important.
It isn’t just about your mindset, it’s about any goals you have in life, and perhaps most importantly, it should be a cornerstone of how you pick your decks for the rest of your days as a tournament Magician after reading this article.
We all fall short.
That’s a problem.
It is, however, also universal. Unless you are perfect, you can’t dodge this one. You are living in a real world bound by physical laws, energy, and entropy. No matter how smart you [think you] are, at the end of the day you are shuffling cards and Fortuna might have it in for you. You make mistakes. Sometimes you do anything and everything right and it’s still not your day. You fall short… But there are still things you can do to put yourself in the best possible position even armed with this knowledge.
What is the takeaway?
Trick question: There are actually two takeaways, one conveniently pithy principle and one corollary.
1) If you really want to win the PTQ (or substitute whatever life changing event you want here), you can’t be satisfied falling short.
2) Because you are inevitably going to fall short, you have to aim as far past the target, arming yourself as mightily as you can, as you can… because you are invariably going to fall short. If you aim for, say, Top 8… Don’t be surprised if you finish Top 32. If you aim for a deck that is “55% against the field” (whatever that means), don’t be surprised if you drop at 3-2, you know, one match better than 50% (man, did you kill those statistics). That is why I try to shatter the metagame with each and every card decision. I fall short most of the time, just like everybody else, but on those golden occasions that I’m on or right, the Blue Envelopes fall like pennies from heaven.
Okay, let’s move to specifics:
1) You really have to believe that you are going to win the tournament and act like you are going to win the tournament. I’m sure that you have seen people fall into PTQ wins who, based on your belief system, “clearly” didn’t deserve them. These people had no frame, they had shoddy decks, their opponents were manascrewed… They probably never won another PTQ, let’s be honest (that, or like Pierre Canali, they transformed from lucky kid to strategically sound grownup / heartthrob by putting in the work and pulling a 180). Magic is a game of luck. It is a game of skill and strategy, too, but it’s at least 10% luck (and even more than that at the amateur level)… which is what makes it interesting. If Magic were 100% skill, we would call it chess, and nobody would want to watch it on Sunday broadcasts, there would be no aesthetic element like Taste the Magic, and there would be no Flores Friday because I don’t have very many things to say about chess. Some “strategists” with their “you have to be faster” or “I guess you have to get lucky” quips actually make my eyes bleed, as they make you so much worse at this game. As if those are acceptable answers. How about “That deck sucks and I am not going to play against it after round 3,” instead? Thanks. Here’s the thing about taking a stand: You’re actively wrong sometimes; on balance, you can be passively wrong almost all of the time. Point being, don’t emulate the people who are falling into their wins or have no plan for common problems. Why? Even when they are successful, you can’t replicate their wins! Nothing matters that you can’t copy, learn from, adapt etc, or at least measure. If some guy with a bad deck won a PTQ because his opponents had a rash of mana difficulty, great for that person, but there is nothing that you can learn from him except perhaps “You are more likely to win at the amateur level when your opponents fail to play a third land.” I’ve watched Jon Sonne and Rob Dougherty win PTQs. I’ve watched Jon Finkel claim a Blue Envelope. I’ve won several of them myself (and you can look up the original reports for fresher perspectives if you haven’t read many or most of them). The takeaway is that there are definitely things that you can learn from, model, adapt, etc, that make it more likely for you to win besides a perceived alignment of the stars. I promise you that Scott telling me that quote, that there was no reason whatsoever to show up to play if I wasn’t going to win, if I didn’t have that belief burning in the center of my soul, improved my chances ahundredfold. I won the damn PTQ the next day.- The. Next. Day. I won two or three PTQs that year, Limited and Constructed both.
2) I hate to pick on Ghost Dad (I really do); it’s so trite. I know I kind of started it and it is incredibly hackneyed, but it is also the best example because people actually claimed that Ghost Dad was The Best deck in a format at some point. I think Ghost Dad was probably about 6/10 of the way to being the best deck in the format. Can you win? Sure. Your opponents can be manascrewed. You can be positioned for your good matchup (you had these for sure). Your opponents’ decks can be so last month. Yadda yadda yadda. There is a reason that by the end of the format there were literally no Ghost Dad teams waving around Blue Envelopes and there were 100% Heartbeat teams winning. The Heartbeat players would fall short… But sliding down all the way to 8/10 if they were absolutely horrendous, they probably still had the best percentage to win. Their card quality was just filthy. Tribe Elders and Tops and Remands… It was just disgusting. They out-countered Wafo-Tapa and raced the fastest Zoo players. Fall short with a 6/10 deck and you win significantly less than half the time… Best hope your teammates are Heartbeat and Vore, or that you drew the Heezy Street (and he gives you an opening).
Another thing that I picked up from Scott is the empyrical belief that there is one best deck, and that it is in fact provable given sufficient trial that there is a best deck, and that you should strive to play such a deck and only that deck. Jonny believes this as an absolute fundamental, and would even go so far as to say that it is the minimum threshold of competency that you play the best deck. All of us fall short. It might even be “rare” that we play the best deck… But a problem that many PTQ level players have, and probably the biggest barrier to their success, is that they wilfully fall short at the beginning by not even trying to play the best deck that they can. Instead of figuring out the best deck to play for that tournament on that day, they go for the 6/10 deck, or a deck that they “like” instead… This is fine, except if your goal is to win the PTQ. How can they be surprised that, falling short… They fall short? You can do everything right and not win a PTQ. That is for certain… but there are also a certain number of factors that you can control. If you really want to win, you owe it to yourself to control as many of those things as you can; Fortuna, the decisions / deck technology / play skill of your opponents, the momentary disappearance of loudspeakers, too-long smoking breaks, the lingering emotional bruising of a breakup, wasting time in the hotel lobby looking at girls in prom dresses one ballroom over, and adverse weather conditions are all conspiring to steal your (likely) < 1% raw share of winning the next PTQ. Why do you have to assist this nefarious cabal of spite and chance with your sub-best- deck decision? Get this into your head: Mike Turian has never played a perfect game of Magic. You, you personally, will invariably fall short of perfection, probably in every game of every round you play. You are going to give up percentage by accident. There is no reason to give up percentage on purpose.
Anyway, all-in-all, these long paragraphs explain my, personal, crushing sorrow at losing at Magic (common as it may be) and consistent advocacy of ideas and stern positions. People only remember that you are wrong, when you are wrong, if you’re worth listening to precisely because you’re so right so often (I’m not talking about myself necessarily, I’m talking in general). Being precisely wrong isn’t a lot different from being wrong by default… except that you might put yourself in the position of being right rather than letting the four winds blow you to your target once in a lifetime.
Okay, lemme blow the dust off of some old… Okay, here we go.
I won my third PTQ, and another one seven PTQs later (same year… I used to play a lot of PTQs). I probably could have won my first two, but I didn’t have very good frame. In the first ever PTQ, I was doing things like letting people get away with playing five Serra Angels without calling the judge, then watching them eliminate my teammates a few rounds later; and in the second PTQ, I refused to try to play out of my mistakes. As if making a mistake meant that I no longer deserved to exist in this tournament, in this universe. Do you have any idea how frequently and how badly your opponent’s err? They’re actually horrendous most of the time, but you are so troubled that you didn’t side in Pyroblast and lost Ihsan’s Shade to Control Magic, or you didn’t side in Anarchy and lost to Circle of Protection: Black, you are so egotistically fixated on yourself, on being perfect, on this frankly bullspit idea that there is some kind of justice or order in the universe and that the best things happen for the most deserving people, that you slump so low in your chair – in your virtual mindspace of a chair at the same time – that you can’t wrap it around your head that this donkey with his enchantments has no business winning this damn tournament either. Step up, Alice! Why did you just concede game 3, you moron?
I went to a very interesting high school. My graduating class in particular was, academically, one of the finest classes ever to graduate from any school. We led the nation in National Merit Finalists, had test scores off the charts, blah blah blah. My high school was also a football powerhouse like this country has never seen. The two years before I attended (I was in 7th and 8th grade) we were National Champions. So my freshman year, we were #1 in the nation, undefeated in the regular season, all of it… Crushing defeat in the first round of the playoffs that snapped our whole collective mindset like a rubber band. By my junior and senior year, we were undefeated National Champions again, but the really interesting year was my sophomore year. We snuck into the playoffs with a too-small two-loss regular lineup. And a funny thing happened. It rained. It was muddy. We got an upset or two. We made some good defensive stops along the way… And suddenly we were in the State finals. Nobody saw it coming, not the media, not the too-small players, not even the coaching staff. And then the old man had a startling realization. Nobody is stepping up. With our loss in the first round the previous year, with our two-loss swiss, there was no dominant team. The rest of the world was not prepared for victory. So he ran a Jon Finkel offense with the game plan designed by Kai Budde. With our backs against the wall he sided in Dromad Purebred. His center was throwing 80 yard passes via Reroute, Rewind, Misdirection. Somebody is going to win this damn thing. If nobody is stepping up, put yourself into the best position to be that somebody. We were dominating National Champions the next two years, but that one, that was the one where we snuck into State, all the sweeter.
The first PTQ I “won” I actually took second, losing to Erik Lauer’s Mono-Black anti-Snow Necropotence (I was B/R Snow and lost every exchange in the most embarrassing possible way, from Icequake damage to Snow-covered landwalk to not being able to regenerate… really). Luckily I had the foresight to play Necropotence, and none of my opponents (until Erik) could match this decision. I therefore had a massive technological advantage and it held up (funny how mana acceleration and broken card drawing will do that)… Until faced by a better mousetrap, which Erik likely had. As for play skill, I will always remember my match against Bruce Cowley (R/W). One game I locked his Ivory Gargoyles with Dystopia plus a little land destruction (just awesome), and the game that locked Top 8 I Necro’d down to one looking for an Incinerate to end the game. Let me tell you, back on 10-12-1996 people did not know to do that. Go back and watch the money Pros from the era at the tournament center on magicthegathering.com. They were actively awful at Necro. Me? I Adrian Sullivan‘d the face with my B/R. Bam. Bang! Incinerate you! Pandemonium.
The next PTQ win (seven tournaments and two formats later, with a Top 8 and 5 x-2s between) I had the foresight to get a sealed deck with both Kaervek’s Torch and Volcanic Geyser, and to draft a first pick Kaervek’s Torch in the Top 8. I won all four Top 8 games with the said Torch before splitting with David Bachmann. I’m going to go ahead and say that Limited PTQs are not very skill intensive when compared with Constructed PTQs. I’m just going to skip those.
Another interesting win was in April of 1999. This time I was armed with Suicide King (Brian Schneider-style Mono-Black beatdown with Flesh Reaver), which is possibly the highest earning PTQ deck of all time (among decks played in more than one tournament). It was only ever played in four tournaments. Becker got Top 8 and punted. Altran lost to a bad Consult. Both Francis Keyes and I won on the last week. Pretty awesome, huh?
Interestingly, with this awesome deck, I got all horrendous matchups all day, and didn’t face a High Tide until Round 10 (Top 4), my only such opponent of the day. In fact, I had my back up against the wall playing Sligh both Round 1 and Round 2. Playing Sarcomancy, Carnophage, and Flesh Reaver. I got soft Secret Force pairings twice, but I had to win one of those matches on rules lawyering (a theme for the day, actually… I got three matches entirely on superior frame). I had no chance to beat Wall of Blossoms and tricked Theron Martin into drawing with me in Round 7, despite the fact that neither of us was anywhere near a lock for Top 8 with two rounds to go. I in fact needed judge assistance in both my Top 8 and Top 4 matches with Pox (I ended up 3-1 against Pox on the day, but I am pretty sure that it was an unwinnable matchup and that I won those matches only on Jedi Mind Tricks and gigantic cracks in my opponents’ mental games). I pulled the old “tell me when I have priority” Matt Place trick in the Top 4 against High Tide (look it up) before finally facing down storied Magic superstar Matt Vienneau in the finals. I didn’t actually know who Matt was at the time, but he threatened me in the bathroom, with “Unlike your last three opponents, I know the rules.” (You have to understand I literally won half my matches on tricking my opponents into drawing, shuffling their graveyards into their libraries (okay, he did that himself, but I was happy taking the game win with two Verdant Forces and two Lifeforces facing down my, um, lone Wasteland), receiving game wins on Urza’s Bauble under-drawing (it was late), and convincing them into not killing me when I had no cards in hand with literally the evil eye (and, let’s be honest, my deliciously charismatic tempo of speech… this would never work on the Japanese). Matt, a PT Top 8 competitor, was certainly justified.)
So of course it was pretty ironic when he had to burn for four playing Nevinyrral’s Disk at four in the morning as I tapped my Sphere of Resistance (“I knew there was a reason I didn’t do that last turn.”)
I could never have won with one if I had even one ounce of mercy in my soul. Say what you will, but it was only the iron in my blood and the pure belief that winning this PTQ that I had driven three hours to attend the night before Easter that allowed me to pull this particular rabbit out of the bag. I had one of the best PTQ decks in history in front of me but managed to have bad matchups all day. I got unlucky with Demonic Consultation, decking myself against -GREEN-. I probably fell asleep at the wheel at some point. But I refused to NOT win. I wish I could still summon this ability, something that I’ve been able to channel in flashes, making exactly the precisely correct moves with my back against the wall. I don’t know how else to explain it but to say this: You want to win a PTQ, you had damn best believe that the PTQ is yours before you start playing. Listen to Scott, Billy, and Gadiel. Winning is your divine right. The tournament itself is a formality. Here’s the thing about mercy: You have to let your opponents kill themselves. I won in large part because my opponents refused to win; the merciful mage by definition cannot take advantage of his opponent. Do you want to be Mother Theresa or Emma Frost? Both mythological icons dress in white.
The other force driving my belief was Jamie Wakefield. Jamie had won a PTQ the week before with Secret Force. No way I was letting him get away with that!
Two words: Step up. Pro Tour Qualifiers are by definition populated by amateurs. Some have Pro experience. Some are great players who haven’t gotten a shot yet or fell on hard times. But for the most part, amateurs. Everyone in the tournament is by that definition on an even playing field. You want to differentiate yourself? Start between your own ears. Even in the Top 8 – and I’ve been this fish more than once – you will have players who are not ready to experience success. Putting yourself in the right frame of mind, deciding precisely what you want and need to do, will go a long way in helping you to claim the envelope.
I was actually qualified for every PT the following year, so I didn’t get to play in PTQs until the summer of 2000, where I made Top 8 about every week, felt medium good about myself, while falling short. Let me tell you, there is nothing worse than that, making Top 8 or even Top 4 or Top 2 as I did, and not winning. I . Some players spread their Top 8 pins on their play mats or use Top 8 pins for tokens or counters in an attempt to intimidate their PTQ opponents. Don’t let them intimidate you. Do you know what someone with a stack of Top 8 pins, sitting in a PTQ chair is? If he is sitting across the table from you, I can tell you what he’s not: a professional Magic player. Respect your opponents’ abilities to execute on what they can really do in the real world, but don’t start of scared; even Jon Finkel gets mana flooded, and you can beat him when that happens (and other games, sometimes, too!).
I didn’t get my next Constructed win until 12-09-2001. I played The Rock. Playing The Rock, I mostly just got lucky to win the 10 round PTQ at Grand Prix: Las Vegas, where Mike Pustilnik (whom I had beaten with The Rock to get my three byes) won at the same time I did. I played against Mons Johnson with the proto-Gobvantage deck; he demolished me. Mons should have won that PTQ, but he got manascrewed in the Top 4. I was 14-0 in games against Donate going into the finals; Ben Rubin and Brian Kibler convinced me to buy out Michael Bernat instead of playing for the slot (but come on, I was 14-0). I had been going out with my then-girlfriend for four months at this point; we got married two months later, so I actually ended up skipping the PT.
Honestly, this is a study in a PTQ win that you can’t copy. I was on a three tournament high with The Rock, but, no longer under-represented I think it was already on its last legs by Sunday evening in Las Vegas. I didn’t play that well, but my opponents made up for it left and right. I had an opponent playing B/U/W Wizards who attacked his Shadowmage Infiltrator into my Phyrexian Plaguelord. Yes, it’s Black. I played Vampiric Tutor against Dumbo Drop and it resolved. He was shocked that I demolished his joke of a manabase with Dust Bowl (can’t counter that!). Classic Malka. I overcommitted my Spiritmongers in the Malka mirror in the Top 4, but got lucky again in three… And then Bernat was willing to part with the invitation. The Rock was ironclad that weekend; my three tournament record with it was 17-3-3, a delta of about 150 DCI points and two tournament wins… Yet I don’t believe it was ever the best deck again. Maybe it was about moment. The right place at the right time. Maybe this is an example of having the right deck right before the Miracle Grow metagame shift and of picking up the slot that nobody else wanted. Maybe there is something to be taken away.
I got a PT invite a year for the next couple of years, but they were all Limited. My next 60-card win was not for another four years, when I won with Critical Mass. This one, as you know, was pure deck advantage. I had a deck that could do no wrong. I finished 8-1-1, and the loss was a punt when I had Meloku in play. That said, it was also about flexibility. I had tested to the max but was still open enough to accept a little good advice. Steve and I made the last minute change of adding two copies of Consuming Vortex. I was dead on board to Tim Gillam’s Urami token when I plucked the Vortex. Game, set, and Blue Envelope.
Deck advantage has consistently been the most important element in my ability to win Constructed PTQs. You can translate this to any tournaments (Champs certainly, Regionals, etc). I am of the firm belief that the most important decision that you make occurs before the tournament starts. You don’t have to be the most practiced, but you have to have the best tools. Almost always, the best deck is not what the rest of the world thinks is the best deck. I never won with The Deck to Beat. The Deck to Beat wins a surprisingly small percentage of tournaments, and is almost always out-performed on ratio by lesser archetypes on a week-to-week basis. This has been true since Black Summer of 1996 with only one blip, care of Vial Affinity. I won with Necropotence with White permanent suppression when R/W Gargoyle was The Deck to Beat, Mono-Black in what was meant to be a sea of Blue combo, The Rock in a Trix field, Critical Mass in a format where (according to Teddy Cardgame) Gifts was more successful than Ravager had been the previous year, and a Heartbeat/Vore/Selesnya (previously Beach House) configuration in a format then largely Gruul and Orzhov, where Wrath of God was considered the overall best card (relatively weak against our configuration). What happened the next week(s)?
In 1996, it’s hard to say; the Internet was not what it is. In any case, Lauer’s deck was probably better than mine (mine was 63 cards with three Necropotences, his had four Skulls, three Demonic Consultations, but was down three card advantages at a mere 60). Snap! In 1999 I won the last week, so there was no ripple in the metagame. In 2001 an interesting thing happened; a new predator deck emerged in Miracle Grow, a deck that was not just good against the decks The Rock was good against… but that crushed The Rock. The Rock was never the right deck to play again as far as I can remember, and it was a horrific choice in the latter part of 2001 Extended season. Critical Mass made Top 8 in the last Grand Prix of the format a week after my win; in 2006 teams, Heartbeat / Vore configurations quickly rose to the top, and my G/W deck borrowing from both Ghazi-Glare and Ghost Dad brought home a handful of invites around the country.
I’m not sure if this is a chicken-and-egg issue, but I never won with the Deck to Beat, but in at least a couple of cases, the definition of The Deck to Beat changed at least somewhat. There is an old Israeli saying that if you and a friend are in the forest being chased by a bear, you don’t have to be faster than the bear… You just have to be faster than your friend. When I “won” in 1996, I wasn’t faster than Lauer, but I didn’t have to be. It was a two-slotter. A lot of my publishing attitude comes out of this philosophy. I don’t know if I publish the absolute best deck every time (everyone falls short, consistently), but I like to think that whatever I produce in this column, on the Podcasts, what have you, is better and more useful in general than what my readers probably have without them.
The second most important element in my PTQ wins has been a sturdy mental game. The win with Suicide King in 1999 was entirely merciless gamesmanship, not play skill, not deck advantage. The non-win in teams is a good counter-example. I let Andy Probasco beat me. I was up a game and got overconfident (remember from last week that “winning” [when you haven’t actually won yet] is the worst thing in the world next to mercy), arrogantly blind to the point that I couldn’t see how he could win. In the deciding game, I actually played out of his optimal early game, but crumbled a little when he hit his one outter (the game itself being far from over). I didn’t take direction from Sadin (who knew he was going to end up a better Constructed player than I was? I had seen him play!), and a little collaboration would have probably won that tournament. Bob Maher is the absolute best model for Magic manhood from this perspective. Bob always assumes the worst, that he’s going to get topdecked, whatever. He always plays tense, sharpest, and ultimately at his best because he never stops looking for “outs” even if a third party observer would think that he’s “winning” (no mercy!). That’s why Bob can win a PT with two lands in play, down 20 cards. My team was lucky that the optimal configurations didn’t disseminate quickly enough, and we had a free pass the next week, playing against more Gifts and Orzhov decks rather than Heartbeat and Vore, arguably the two best teams decks.
A subtle fact is that all my wins have been at the beginning or the end of a season. I have two last week of the season wins, with everything else in the first three weeks. This is important for especially long seasons. You can exploit a metagame with a Critical Mass or Suicide King, but it is generally easiest to have something pretty good in a room full of mostly awful. The rogue decks that win at the end of a season have to be some of the best decks ever, but the rogue decks at the beginning of the season can be wildly sub-optimal (long view)… if they are even just a little bit better than whatever is already there in the metagame.
Note that I didn’t go over the dozen or so near misses over the years. For every win there was a loss in the finals, a Top 8 mana flood, some poorly tapped Serrated Arrows, a bad beat story. I used to make a lot of excuses… But I probably didn’t have a great mental game back then. For example, I didn’t think about things like Parallax Wave management or whether I should hold back in fear of a trick back then. What a play represents is often much more important than the play itself.
Here is a piece of fairly important philosophy that if you adopt, will probably make you a better person as well as player: I try to never lose to manascrew. Maybe not never never, but close enough to never that I am willing to claim “never” if you know what I mean. I try not to lose to manascrew in the sense that even when I am short lands, I make an effort to figure out what needs to happen for me to stay competitive in a game or even win instead of just giving up; I try to create a plan and if I fail to execute on it, hey, we all fall short. Usually when I lose to what I might shorthand as manascrew, it is because I kept a speculative hand that didn’t materialize. Like at Champs when I lost to Tankus, I was unwilling to mulligan a hand with three two-drops despite having only two lands and a hand that required WW, G1, and R2. The majority of the time that hand ends up playable… I was lazy (maybe I had given up?) and I didn’t really think about what it meant to keep it. I lost, discarding. Usually players are unwilling to mulligan bad hands because they are afraid of giving up the card; note that when I was discarding, I was also “giving up the card” (and more) with almost no chance to win. Speculative hands with no clear path for the first few turns are usually bad keeps unless you are in a bad matchup where you have to get lucky anyway (I was in a good one). Remember, when you lose purely to manascrew, you are positioning yourself in a universe of chance where you got the short stick, instead of a universe of choices where you can make the right one.
That said, I think that the majority of PTQ players lose to manascrew… about every round (that they lose). I would say that something like 70-80% of matches are decided on one player or another having either a little too little or a little too much mana and not knowing what to do while the other guy autopilots him. Yeah, it sucks to have too much land or too little. Live with it. Unless you are in an elimination round or carrying a loss in the Swiss, you might just have to eat the loss… But don’t give up unless you have a good reason. I know that I have lost a surprising number of games where my (good / better) opponent stumbled but my play was somehow not appropriate. Those losses would never have happened if my level-headed opponents hadn’t had plans, tried to figure out how to win, maybe even trapped me, the unsuspecting probable “winner” with a keen swindle or two. Maybe you are less likely to win manascrewed, but it’s not impossible. When I won with Suicide King I was carrying a loss in a Game 3 situation in the middle of the day – not even the end of the Swiss – where my opponent had two copies of Lifeforce, a Verdant Force, and Natural Order on the stack, sacrificing an Uktabi Orangutan that had taken my Cursed Scroll, the only permanent I had in play but one Wasteland.
And even carrying a previous loss, in this Game 3 situation, I came back to win the tournament.
You know what? I’m not even that good.
For now, juggle these here five fish:
1) Play the best possible deck to win the tournament you have to win. Ignore the jeers. The best deck is probably not the Deck to Beat.
2) You will fall short, and often. The trick, mentally, is to never be satisfied falling short. I fell into a trap for some years actually happy to make Top 8. That is no way to qualify for the Pro Tour! Set your goal past the tournament so that when you fall short in first place, hey, at least you won a tournament! Constantly strive to better yourself.
3) Wrap yourself in an iron belief in your destiny to win the tournament. Eschew any and all mercy. You’re there for a reason. He’s there for a reason. Your reason is probably not “letting a stranger steal your PTQ with a take-back after he punted the match.” I’ve been on both sides of this. Getting the take-back makes you a worse player and person. I don’t know where people got this idea that Dave Price is a nice guy. Who do you think taught me? “I don’t go to PTQs to make friends.” King of the Qualifiers. Part of this is to resist intimidation. When you are intimidated, it probably means that your belief in your divine right of kings and the qualified is not so ironclad. Every force in the universe is trying to take your slot away. Don’t give up what you’ve got so cheaply. It doesn’t matter if your insides are made of spun sugar and porcelain; you can cry about your pathetic life when you get home, after you’ve claimed your Blue Envelope. At the tables, never let them see you flinch.
4) Be prepared to get lucky. If Kai can win a PT this way, you can win damn a PTQ.
5) Stay flexible. There are no permanent alliances to colors, to deck preference, to single card choices. Black might be purple, orange, or even Botswana next week. Change or die.
Just one man’s opinion and experience. Talk among yourselves.
PS: Personally, I like a good fight. In fact, I can really appreciate and even like being outplayed. I’d much rather be swindled by a crafty master than lose because I was manascrewed or I misclicked. When I sit down with one of my friends – and most of my good friends I met bashing or being based by in Magic tournaments – it’s understood that we both want the other guy to be manascrewed and that neither one of us expects a thimbleful of quarter. To this day Kowal will never let me forget the Bird Lightning that cost me a GP Top 16 PT slot pass down, and last week, Zvi even made fun of me on the Podcast for falling for one of his bluffs during a Worlds playtest session.
To me, the most important elements of Magic occur between the ears. Turnabout is fair play and dirty tricks get a golf clap. I’d just like to share one last story:
I actually backstabbed Paul Jordan for a PTQ, playing instead with John Shuler and Brian Kowal even though I promised Paul I would play with him. Then we won. Oops! Paul ended up qualifying with Matt Urban and Josh Ravitz (none of us knew it back then, but that would end up being some kind of upgrade). So of course, first round of Day 2, the apprentices were up against the old man. Paul and Josh had all the angles figured out. I can’t believe I didn’t see this coming.
“Mike, call it!”
“For all of us?”
“For all of us.”
Paul slammed his hand down on the quarter, covering it.
“Gimme head!” (I always said ‘gimme head’ that back then)… Why, oh why, wasn’t it “Tails never fails!”? How did I not see this coming?
Paul and Josh had, of course, set up the quarter. There went about 20% value times three! The good guys lost in a squeaker. What can you say? Well done.