Flores Friday – On Losing

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Friday, June 20th – Losing… as Magic players, losing games and matches must surely come as second nature. After all, even the best players in the world lose a third of their matches. When we face defeat, what matters most is that we learn from our position… and that we’ve done our best. Today’s Flores Friday sees Mike investigate his own philosophy of loss, while offering sage advice to those who struggle in defeat.

The answer to the question, usually, is “It depends on how you want to lose.”

Josh will sometimes become frustrated and say that he doesn’t want to lose at all… But really, every deck can and will lose some of the time, and it is silly to expect otherwise, even when you are, say, packing Predator in a room full of Pickles.

The application of the sentence, historically, has been in reference to manabases. I come from a school largely advocated by Zvi, which is that when you have multiple deck choices offering at least what appear to be similar value in the metagame, the best choice is the deck with the fewest number of colors (and generally a larger percentage mana count). This is in direct opposition to the Brian Kibler school of thought from the same time period, which advocated flexibility and sheer card power (this way of thinking can be applied just as easily to Worth Wollpert, Lan D. Ho, and others depending on time period).

The reason that I, personally, have tended to go down the Zvi line with a more consistent manabase, if possible, is probably a product of the tournaments that I play in. A Pro Tour regular who is consistently surrounded by players with similar or greater skill level may not err in this direction, whereas a Pro Tour irregular who typically plays in local amateur or qualifying events where the average opponent does not typically have the edge in skill simply has one less thing to worry about; that is, you don’t want to give away too many turns or tax your life total yourself overmuch if you can help it. With fewer colors and more consistent mana, you have more breathing room and will generally have more time and freedom to topdeck out of a bad draw, even in a game you are not “supposed” to win (recently, as we have been spending more time together, Josh has also told me that I use life gain too much as a crutch, and should just play tighter and I won’t need it).

In any case, I have been thinking more and more recently about controlling how I lose. I had a couple of games at Regionals where I thought that I could have won, but I didn’t; this stung a little more than usual, not just because I had made Top 8 last year (and I obviously wanted to improve my position by one), but because I think some of those games had gotten away from me.

If you go back and read the right tournament reports, or alternately listen to the right stories, you will sometimes encounter a player / storyteller / hero who talks about having to play a game “perfectly” – or at a minimum very tightly – over the course of several turns in order to win. This is the exact opposite of a general theme I have advocated in the past, namely playing a loose and deceptive game designed to misdirect the opponent into playing so far in the wrong direction that he simply cannot win. The “I have to play tight / perfectly” environment is one that we as tournament players have all experienced, namely we are losing and everything is against us, and we might possibly get lucky, but we have to do everything we possibly can right, under conditions that are dictated to us (rather than determined by us) in order to win.

The first time I really experienced this in a very specific way was at U.S. Nationals 1999. I had started the tournament off 5-0, and was playing for the Limited title in a U/W mirror boasting a deck with Morphling, Mother of Runes, Wizard Mentor, and Karmic Guide; sadly I lost in two to tight mana draws and being on the wrong end of a pair of Thornwind Faeries, but 5-1 was still an awesome opening.

I got two quick wins to start Day 2, winning the Hatred mirror easily due to superior Zombies management (trade my Carnophage for your Sarcomancy… think about it), then got the mighty Dave Humpherys in three, Hatred over Replenish. My next two matches were unlucky, but if I got both of the last two, I was still Top 8 material.

So it was Round 11.

In Game 1 I lost the flip. That was okay. My Ravenous Rats that no one else played were doing their job. Strip your future, chump block. Race. I was going to win the race. A turn or two out, he pulled out a notebook and started reading out loud.

“At the end of your turn, after ‘at end of turn’ effects have been put on the stack…”

Could he read from a notebook? I immediately called for the judge. He could.

I cursed myself.

This was my own fault, you know.

Me and my big mouth.

I had gotten Waylay tech from the Wisconsin guys and drafted it to win my first pod on Day 1. Few knew that Waylay was White Lightning. Few should have known. But predictably, I ran around telling everyone who would listen how awesome I was with my Waylay tech. This actually radically re-shaped the Day 2 metagame, littering it with White Weenie decks where previously there had been Survival decks.

Like this one.

My math was off [now].

Damn Waylay.

My own fault.

I would have won if I had won the flip, too.

Game 2 I got him quickly.

This is how I wrote about Game 3 in 1999:

I kept a one-Swamp hand. Though I didn’t miss a single land drop, I was still stuck on one land on turn 6, and had not yet cast a Black spell. Koby had a Paladin and two Warrior en-Kors to my, um, two Cursed Scrolls… but I had many cards in hand.

There are times in this game where the only thing that will get you through is mental toughness. Sometimes you just have to refuse to lose. You need to get a little lucky, maybe, but you just do it. I lost my mental game in the last round at Grand Prix: Washington and let Jon Finkel take $500 away from me because I was so depressed that I didn’t make Top 8. I decided that it didn’t matter that I had cast no Black spells, or that I had so many cards in hand, or that those were en-Kors on the other side.

I wasn’t going to lose my mental game.

I was going to win this game.

This was a really hard game to win because not only was I manascrewed through the mid-game, but my friends all walked away shaking their heads. “It was a good run.” I found them, smiling, a few minutes later, having won, and no one believed it.

Going into Regionals this year, I wanted to try to harness that player, whom I had been nine years ago, if I ever got into trouble. There was a spark of Kai Budde in that player. I didn’t have a huge percentage chance on the decisions I made, but I knew that I would have to do certain things in a certain order if I was going to win. I got rid of one en-Kor (land, Diabolic Edict, if I recall), then the other (land, lucky Cursed Scroll hit, I believe), then the Paladin (lucky Cursed Scroll again). I was probably pretty low at the end of the game. Did the other guy flood out? You bet he did! But I still had to win a very low percentage game.

In 2008 I realize that it wasn’t so much mental toughness but slightly more forward thinking that got me out of that game and into a position for Top 8 with one round to go (in the unlikely case you didn’t know the story, I actually won, got double jumped on breakers, and finished 9th). This is the problem I have, and the problem that I have been having pretty consistently, undiagnosed, for most of my career (and you probably have, too, I’d guess) that cost me some of those games that got away at Regionals, and probably countless more over the years…

Too slow.

Too tentative.

Too sit-there.

I am thinking in particular about a Game 3 where I lost to Gargadon beatdown with a Mannequin in hand, a Shriekmaw down, and the fortune of topdecking another Shriekmaw. That should just never happen!

Here is a balance:

One of the main ways that amateur players throw away cards / value / games is that they chump block too early. I know this as a general rule the same way that I know that “mana maximization is good” (it is usually good, but if you go back and read about some of my catastrophic tournament losses when I was ahead of the curve with a great deck, you know that slavish devotion to “mana maximization is good” is one of the main ways I toss ’em); so I have a little autopilot in my head that does the math and just doesn’t make any decision until I am down to “lethal in one,” or at least “lethal in two” going the wrong way.

I am certainly not advocating premature chump block (remember, “[o]ne of the main ways that amateur players throw away cards / value / games is that they chump block too early[!]”)… However I don’t do anything. I very often default to the “I’m not dead yet” switch and take however much I am getting attacked for. In the Gargadon game, I could probably have fought for a one-for-one that would have stunted his mana, tried to put out a Faerie Macabre to block his Faerie Conclave, Makeshifted a Shriekmaw to chump while eating his mid-combat Conclave, or at least run a low Mind Shatter that would have saved me from his Pact of Negation to protect the Garagadon beatdown. I was sculpting for a much later point in the game, not really thinking about the details for getting there, just what I was going to do, what my plan was, what I had to topdeck, etc. In fact, I actually got the Shriekmaw and I wasn’t able to win with it because my mana was tight (could have unloaded spells earlier) and I didn’t anticipate Pact of Negation (maybe could have gotten that one of those turns I wasn’t doing anything).

My point is, I probably could have gotten that game if I had elected to act earlier in some way.

One of the things I do a lot, especially in Limited, is to “blow” a card in Phase One, or at least not get maximum value out of it because I am in a mana rut and I know that if I don’t spend now, I am probably going to have to discard next turn if I don’t draw a land. Do you ever do this? This has been medium-good to me over the years in recouping some small amount of value in manascrewed games… This kind of thinking can probably help in situations like I described, above, when I wasn’t doing anything even though I had decent cards and I was on the defensive.

One of the things that I did right in the 1999 game against en-Kors and Paladins (what could be worse for Mono-Black?) was to recognize two things: 1) I was under a particular clock based on the threats he presented, and 2) that I had to execute a particular set of plays in a particular order if I was going to beat or extend that clock. I promise you that in the Regionals 2008 match against the Gargadons, I simply recoginized the suspended Gargadons as “potentially big and dangerous some time in the future” and made no attempt to keep myself at 10, 19, or some other number larger than 9 in order to steal a turn. I took Mutavault and Conclave damage I probably didn’t have to take; perhaps worse, I didn’t actually do the math on my own race back at him (something I was intimately aware of in the 1999 match, which allowed me to fight out of it before he could recover from his flood draw).

The last big problem was that I had no coherent plan to end the game favorably. If I wasn’t going to end up making a big play, I probably should have just Mind Shattered him for however many cards he was holding (only 1-2); Mind Shatter was one of my bombs out of the board, and I drew it. It never got played and I lost 2-3 turns after ripping it. Would it have been right to go after his hand? I don’t know! I didn’t take the time to count the counters on his two suspended Gargadons or consider the consequences of his going after me that turn (I certainly had potential chump fodder). Furthermore, not only did I not properly respect the fact that he had two potential 9/7 creatures coming online, I had nothing of sufficient size in my deck capable of truly racing them if they had come online (just Black removal and potentially Finks for a few chumps).

Some fish (I should really write these down on Post-Its and carry them around with me so I don’t forget):

1) If you anticipate mana will be tight later in the plan, it may be imperative to utilize even a strategic card at sub-optimal (literally, for once!) value in order to avoid discarding or just to get in a trade that you would not otherwise have an option for, simply because your card never gets played.

2) Even when you don’t know you’re racing, you’re probably racing. When you are losing and you don’t know why, or you feel like you don’t know what to do, take a moment to figure out the terms of the race you are in, and how what the opponent is doing to you intersects with the problems that race represents.

3) If you are sculpting to win a race some number of turns in the future, it may be important to graph the number of turns the opponent needs to win the race versus how long it will take you to win the race so that you can strategically block / chump block in order to buy sufficient time to win.

4) Follow through all the way in your imagination. In a lot of the games you lose, you probably have a strategic vision that covers some of what has to be dealt with. When you lose, it will often be because you didn’t reason far enough, you know, to the point where you actually have him filling in his name on the sheet on the loser line. How did / will you get him there?

5) (4a, really)… When you don’t know what else to do, attack with everybody! Sitting still with no plan, never declaring a block, is just a tacit guarantee you are making with the universe that it will take longer for you to lose, but that you are fine losing… eventually. Attacking with all your guys is better than that. Why? Because the downsides (losing the game) are similar, but via the non-complete inaction strategy, you might actually get there. It’s like this… When you are stranded in the middle of a forest, what do you do? Will you stay put (and probably die of starvation / bear bites sooner rather than later) or anything else? One great philosopher would tell you to pick a direction and start hiking. You might be going the wrong way, but hey, at least you’re not stranded in the middle of the forest anymore! In fact, you might not know exactly where you’ve ended up, but if you walk hard and far enough, it’s probably somewhere not in the forest at all.

6) The most important thing that will help you play out of a hole is to recognize that you are / are going to be in the hole and start taking actions that will delay the opposing forward activity when you still have enough time to act. If you are too sit-there / slow / tentative, you will often find yourself in a situation where you are looking at a hand full of blanks, but where if you had acted earlier, you would have been able to get some value out of your cards. This is a tricky problem because, from my experience anyway, I only realize I have erred in this particular way a turn or too after it is already too late. Like a mulligan algorithm, recognizing the behavior and sculpting to better play can only be accomplished with practice; hopefully a notice that you should be looking will be a leg up on improving this part of your game.