Flores Friday – The Top 8 Ways to Cleaner Play

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Everyone makes mistakes. Even at the top level of play, people tap the wrong mana, make bad attacks, play too aggressively, or too timidly. Today’s Flores Friday sees Mike share his top eight tips to clean up our play. While playing the perfect game of Magic may be a pipe dream, producing a polished performance is of paramount importance to players that plan to place highly in the PTQs. Let Mike show you how!

I know I am called Bad Player and all, but I actually have a pretty solid mental game. Zvi claims he bluffed me in playtesting, which is possible because I can be tentative in creature-on-creature matchups against better players, but in general, I tend to make solid reads. Then there’s tilting… Here’s a tiny bundle of helpfulness: The best time to try to tilt the opponent is when you are in a topdeck fight and your opponent has plucked two lands in a row (you can try to tilt someone who just ripped Tarmogoyf but it isn’t going to do much unless he is a complete donkey). That’s your free tip on how to exploit a common situation for the day! Following is a list of eight ways to avoid getting yourself read, or caught.

8. Don’t Listen to Jamie!

It might be all about the dinosaurs. He might actually have helped put Mike Turian in the Top 8 of a previous World Championship… But believe you me, don’t listen to what the King of the Fatties has to say about the “mistake die.” For those of you who don’t know – and if you want to stay blissfully ignorant just jump past the rest of this paragraph and read the next one so as to not damage your brain – the mistake die is a little six-sided (or so) you keep at the table with you. Every time you make a mistake you add a count to the die. I think something happens when you hit six but I didn’t read that far, myself.

I have encountered a couple of forum posters on this very site talk about using a mistake die. I’ve even played against opponents with Pro Tour Top 8s – okay, Pro Tour Top Eight – under their his belt(s) who played with the mistake die (Wow, did I make that sentence awkward. — MJLaMoAHS). I am telling you right now, don’t even consider playing with the mistake die. The one of biggest mistakes you can make is playing with the mistake die; if you choose to, you might as well start it on “2” because the existence of the mistake die is itself a major flub.

The reason is that Magic, once you get past the games where one player just punts a winnable game out the window, is largely a game of information. Better information leads to more informed decisions leads to more victories. Why do people pay money to read Magic articles? They want better information than their opponents. Simple. When you are playing with the mistake die you are sitting with Pandora’s Box a millimeter ajar on your table. You see, adjusting the mistake die gives the opponent information. Why was your attack a mistake? Does that mean that you have something better that I don’t know about in your hand? The mistake die helps to alert the opponent of opportunities. He might not be able to utilize all of them, but mistakes do add up, and they can topple great kingdoms given the chance. No reason to give the other bugger front row seats…

Additionally, there is the psychological element. BDM tells me that the differentiating factor between today’s Level 5 and 6 players and the great players of days gone by is that now especially the young bucks can make a mistake and get past it. That’s their thing. They don’t dwell on screwups, but instead try to persevere and play out of them. Gabriel Nassif, Willy Edel, and Olivier Ruel are all famous for poor individual in-game decisions… But if they let their mistakes get to them – or, say, imagined little six-sided reminder notes onto their sides of the board – they would probably not be Player of the Year contenders, high level Pros, what have you.

As with any sort of information, yes, you can use a mistake die to create disinformation… But speaking from experience, I have enough problems keeping the in-game factors straight between my ears (plus watching for shenanigans) without also managing a completely unnecessary (fake) mistake die.

7. Don’t Leave Up UU When You Need U1

This is a very common mis-tap that you probably make if you have been playing for a few years but you don’t necessarily realize you are making. It involves playing permission in a multicolored deck (or not), taking your turn and passing with two mana open, UU, instead of some Ux combination (whatever your colors are).

You young whippersnappers probably don’t fall into this one as badly as players who remember when Counterspell was in Standard. Basically the rote default for Blue players was to leave up exactly UU when they passed (or UU1 to pay for a Disrupt, or some variation thereof) as some combination of “fear me, I have a Counterspell” and / or “I actually have a Counterspell.” It was a bluff, a semi-bluff, or just a correct amount of mana to leave untapped so that you could, you know, Counterspell something.

In multi-dimensional, polychromatic, current Blue decks, whether Standard or Limited, leaving up UU is basically shorthand for “I don’t have a Counterspell but I want you to think I do.” Do you see it? There is almost no reason to leave up exactly UU in 2007 Standard. By leaving up UU instead of Ux when essentially every two mana permission spell but Familiar’s Ruse costs U1, you are cutting off all manner of flexibility. Therefore, even if you are not bluffing (you really do have a two mana permission spell), you are probably telling the opponent that you don’t have Skred / Terror / Brute Force / whatever even if you have the permission. If you actually do have a copy of the relevant spell and you are leaving up UU anyway, you are actually committing a violation of the next error, which in Constructed, is probably even worse.

6. Don’t Play for the Trick You Don’t Have

Future WSOP Bracelet winner Eric Kesselman was once a fierce drafter. He would team draft at Neutral Ground every week, improved over the course of many losses, and went on to pass his knowledge to the next generation of drafters. One of the pillars upon which Eric Magic Bible was balanced was that you don’t play for the card you don’t have if it means sacrificing the ability to play the card – trick specifically – that you do. Is this obvious? Until I had my knuckles rapped by Paul Jordan in 2001 or thereabouts, I found myself playing the opposite way a dizzying amount in Limited, and I bet that you fall into the same trap if you actively think you are better than you actually are (pretty common for the well-read Magic player, unfortunately). There is definitely a right proportion to bluffing, but I think that it is a good rule of thumb to leave yourself the options that you can actually execute over the ones that are designed to simply scare another player into a error; that is putting a lot of faith in something or someone that you ultimately can’t control, generally with no force to back up the threat.

How do you know that you are making this mistake? Usually it occurs when you tap your mana so that you can’t play your real spell, but you are representing either a common trick that might be helpful in your situation, that, or a truly devastating rare that the opponent might just be forced to play around (but you don’t have).

All of this is, of course, contingent on being able to win the game via clean play. If you’re definitely going to lose on the merits, it is your moral obligation to lie (not verbally, and not to the judge), cheat (ironically it is your moral obligation to not cheat), and steal (value) however you are capable in order to salvage the game. If that means bluffing a card you don’t have to the exclusion of being able to play the relevant card that you do have, then by all means do so… You might convince your opponent to not attack or block into your “devastating trick” (which is the usual reason you will play this way). In the majority of games that you can win the regular way, I would counsel “not getting fancy.”

5. Don’t Trade

I am actually pretty guilty of this and for some – even many – Constructed decks I actually preach trading with value. In recent months I have come to realize that trading / attrition is completely pointless in almost any matchup against a “broken” deck. It’s dumb to do, a waste of time a fair amount.

That said, this section is actually aimed at specific sorts of trading. About five years ago I was playtesting Opposition against Trenches and I put one of Squirrels in front of one of MikeyP’s Goblins. “What are you doing?!?” MikeyP was incensed, correctly. My theory was that my Squirrel Nest was infinite whereas his lands were not. His argument was better: I had Opposition; Opposition let me “trade” Squirrels for Goblins anyway; however, with more Squirrels I would have more options (in this case, just tapping all his guys and going for the win). A pure trade would not generally be in my favor in from the long view, even if it was theoretically better at any moment. Just last night, I had the option of killing an Urza’s Factory token by trading with my own, or waiting, bouncing it off my Shadowmage Infiltrator. I chose the little bounce, and topdecked another Jonny Magic. My opponent had Garruk Wildspeaker, so it looked pretty bad for me. I couldn’t attack with my Fear guys because of his Factory production. Like I said… It didn’t look good. We both kind of made Worker bees while I was drawing nothing off the top… Then I realized: I can win this. My opponent had to amass a certain number of Urza’s Factory tokens before he could Overrun me, but if I held on, so long as he didn’t trample over my 2/2s to put me to -40, I might be able to topdeck Cryptic Command and win it. He couldn’t make any small attacks… because of my twin Shadowmage Infiltrators, together (however frightened of 2/2 artifacts) were fearsome on defense.

It’s like the real Jonny Magic says: Interactive Magic is a game of options. When you are presented with a decision with two similar outcomes, it is usually right to take the path that preserves more options in the coming turns; that way, even if the opponent has more cards or higher card quality, you will have more resources to leverage.

4. Don’t Play Out Your Last Land

This is basically a concession in the narrowly contested late game. I know the feeling. I did it at Regionals the turn after I tapped my Serrated Arrows at the wrong time. You know as well as I do that it is tantamount to concession, a hopeless “You’ve got me,” when, in fact, we know that there is no such thing as hopeless. People play Reanimate with no Sutured Ghoul in their graveyards in the finals of Grands Prix. Goblins masters force Champions-to-be to go off and they don’t know how to work their decks. People make mistakes, maybe not always, but often enough that we don’t want to pull our pants down for the window of one damn turn just to show them that yes we don’t have anything. Come kill us.

Point being: Don’t do it. If you are going to concede for time, concede. If you still want to win, don’t basically concede. You’re just going to end up putting yourself on tilt.

3. Don’t Look!

This is most relevant with Cursed Scroll / Magus of the Scroll and multiple cards, but can be translated to any kind of randomization. If you have two cards, activate the Cursed Scroll, look at one, and then name it, even the biggest hee-haw in the room is going to yank the other card if he was paying attention (though maybe you can use this to your advantage at the Matrix / ninja level). The simpler solution is to just not look and use a randomization device. Rob Hahn recommended a die (here, unlike Jamie’s die, is a good idea for tournament play). He would not let the opponent pick on a Hypnotic Specter. Not Hymn. Nothing. Never. It is easy to see why not looking at your cards is a good idea with Cursed Scroll, but why is it a good idea with random discard? Against all honest opponents, it probably doesn’t matter, but not every opponent is honest. As with mistakes, good tweaks in operations add up, and can tack on victories over the course of a career. In the long long run, you’ll thank me for this piece of advice.

2. Don’t Let Him Have It

One of the most common ways to lose games when you are ahead is to let your opponent topdeck the card that he needs to beat you. I was recently playing a Teachings deck against a G/R Big Mana deck; he had no cards, I was cracking with Finkel… It seemed like I couldn’t lose. However I was a little low, and… What’s this? He ripped Molten Disaster! Dead. That was probably the only card in his deck that he could have ripped to win at that point… and I let him have it.

What does this mean? How could I have stopped him?

I might not have been able to stop him from actually drawing the finishing Split Second threat, but I could have reduced the chances of its being lethal. I could have bounced his Garruk Wildspeaker, or even just one of his lands… something to keep him off of the nine mana he needed to play Molten Disaster with Split Second. I am not 100% sure that I could have done it, but I remember thinking to myself “I hope he doesn’t draw Molten Disaster” … yet I didn’t address the math on the board one whit. I figured that if he drew Molten Disaster it was an “if he has it, he has it” situation, when in fact there might have been a way for me to circumvent his kill… This robbed me of a potential win purely on laziness.

It goes the other way, too. Sometimes we play for specific end games and don’t realize that we have other routes to victory. I was playtesting with Andre Coimbra recently and he thought he needed a land to blast me out with Profane Command. Nope, he didn’t draw land. Wait! He had me exactly. He might not have been able to do what he originally intended, but he had just enough mana to give his men Fear, return a Keldon Marauders to play, and sacrifice it to a heretofore unrevealed Greater Gargadon for two points that he needed to finish me off. Its flexible clarity like this that is making Andre the modern Alex Shvartsman of the GP circuit.

1. Don’t Bluff [if you can help it]

You don’t want to get caught? Don’t put your hand in the cookie jar.

Like war, bluffing is inevitable. You probably can’t win a big tournament without putting on a brave face and tricking at least one or two fish. However in the long run, the rewards go to the tightest players… Bluffing is rarely tight. It’s a tool you should use when you don’t plan to get caught, or a gambit to pull out of your hat when what you need is a miracle. I know that I’ve randomly attacked with a 2/2 in Limited and gotten my fingers burnt because I saw Mike Turian do the same thing successfully five minutes earlier; you know you’ve tossed away creatures the same way, too.

I remember being in love with the greatest bluff (actually trap) of all time: Antoine Ruel over Kenji Tsumura at Pro Tour: LA. Talking to Antoine a few months later was quite sobering. “I looked at my hand and knew that I would lose if he resolved a Psychatog. I just played to stop him from playing his Psychatog.”

Did he walk the best player in the world around the room like a trained poodle? It sure looked like he did to me! Did he have to do it? According to Antoine, also yes. To him, it wasn’t a bluff / trap / whatever… He actually had to get rid of that projected Psychatog and he used the only tools he had to do so. That means that Antoine had a strategy, a good one, and that he was actually pretty tight in his trap. He wasn’t trying to make Kenji look bad, he was doing the only thing he could to stay alive. The fact of the matter is that most bluffing is just vanity. In Limited, players love to sneak in two points early just to say that they could. There are few things more satisfying than the opponent looking at his guy, electing not to block, and admitting verbally “Okay, you got me.” I usually tell him I don’t have anything after the first walk-through; it’s elating! We make unfavorable attacks without necessarily needing to, or attack as an outlyer, not as a focused part of our offensive strategies… I don’t know why we do it.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a correct time for a bluff, and probably a correct proportion. But like anything else in your arsenal, you should know when and why you are pulling on this lever, and for what purpose. If you don’t, don’t be surprised when you get caught.