What’s really depressing about it all is that the mistakes… The mistakes I made… They’re the same mistakes I used to make, I remember making, but managed to (largely) iron out of my game last year. Maybe that’s the difference between an up-and-coming donkey with a head full of new theories, facts, and little if any experience versus a truly fine technician. The donk knows enough to get himself into trouble; he makes – and at the best of times, recognizes the fact that he makes – mistakes that a kitchen table casual player or complete newcomer might never care to identify. He makes certain mistakes because his efforts at maximizing tempo and card advantage, setting up Threshold become automatic. He doesn’t see if and when he should be breaking generic form, how a play can be better when it differs from what is supposed to happen.
I’ve known about these mistakes for some years. I still make them. Most embarrassing, I even identified one of them mid-mistake and probably could have undone it before it was too late. Nope. Suicide. Vomit-suicide.
When did it start? I haven’t been practicing as much. BDM blames Clark. Paul blames Clark. When it was just Bella I could still put away ten or even twenty hours of playtest a week. This year I didn’t even know that Champs was coming and didn’t even start practicing until about two weeks before the tournament. I came up with a deck that I really liked but got tricked into not playing it… And by “tricked” I mean I had a bad playtest session. I wish I had stood by Poorlash. It’s cool that Poorlash posted some Top 8s around the Champs, but even if it hadn’t, I would have rather failed with Poorlash than failed with Predator.
I felt a little analysis paralysis. Becker once wrote an article that said that how well I do in a format has nothing to do with how good my deck is, rather with how well I know the format. This time I felt like I only knew enough to know that I didn’t know enough. We discovered Planeswalkers relatively late (for some reason I thought that you could use their abilities on upkeep rather than immediate main); I figured if nothing else Fiery Justice could kill basically any Planeswalker; also Champs is notorious for untuned decks, and I thought that an aggressive beatdown deck could exploit the inefficiencies in the format. I went 1-2.
“I’m depressed,” Paul said.
“Sorry you couldn’t play.” (Paul lives in NJ but came to hang out in NYC instead of defending his 1998 NJ State Championship.)
“It’s not that… I’m 6-0 in drafts. That’s not why I’m depressed.”
“I’m depressed that you played Predator, that you couldn’t come up with something better than a Block deck with a couple of Treetop Villages.”
“I just wish I played better.”
Round 1 – Predator mirror
I played versus a very nice guy named Sam from Williamsburg; definitely seemed like a gm. I actually had to play really tightly to get this one; Sam out-drew me on Tarmogoyfs and I played to one life in Game 1. I made a bit of an awful play, thinking that I had a third Fiery Justice when all I had was a Dead / Gone, but ultimately, Sam didn’t draw Dead / Gone when he needed it and my giant Predator, even down several cards, was the only creature that ended up mattering; I drew three Riftsweepers, but they chumped just fine. In the second game, he worked me with a Fiery Justice for the only Tarmogoyf I would draw in the match and a Serra Avenger after setting me up with a naked Stonecloaker (great play). I, on the other hand, spent three removal spells drawing out a Stonecloaker, drawing out another Stonecloaker, and finally a mediocre trade against Rebuff the Wicked. This guy! My last Condemn snagged his large Predator, allowing me to make a larger Predator and immediately block his Tarmogoyf. I eventually got the match on the basis of having the largest creature and Sam not drawing Dead / Gone when he had to.
Round 2 — MGA
I played another super nice guy, Jesse, with MGA. Like the match against Sam, I let him get me to one in Game 1. I evaluated pretty quickly that the only way I could lose was if he topdecked Timbermare against me. I made the snap judgment that I needed to win quickly enough that I could minimize the chances of that happening. Then I did myself one better and figured out how to win even if he topdecked Timbermare. All I needed to do was to hold back Stonecloaker. He could hit his “out” and I would just play Stonecloaker, block, and almost certainly win on the counterattack (all his creatures would be tapped, too).
The problem is that I started to win.
“Winning.” Damn you, “winning.” As far as I can tell, “winning” is almost as bad as mercy. In the previous match, I had drawn three useless Riftsweepers in the first game, had been out-drawn on Tarmogoyfs, gotten waltzed into a beautiful Stonecloaker-into-Fiery Justice to nail two key creatures in the matchup. Under those conditions, I had to formulate and execute on a tight strategy. I had no other recourse but to be overrun. However, in this situation where I was suddenly “winning,” I fell into automatic patterns. I started making the mana efficient tempo plays that you make when you are “winning.” I forgot for a moment that he had an out. A moment was all I needed. Vomit-suicide.
I recently read that anyone can ruin his entire life in forty-five minutes. I’m not talking about getting a gun and murdering everyone in sight from a clock tower, Stephen King-style, until the police take you down in a blaze of hot lead and newspaper headlines-to-be. I’m talking about throwing away years or even decades of tight execution (or union dues), personal advancement, and ass kissing by telling off your boss; calling up your wife and informing her about who you’ve been seeing behind her back; placing a bet that – when you miss – will put you thousands of dollars in arrears to exactly the wrong person. Forty-five minutes.
In a single game, who needs forty-five minutes when you can blow it all given one turn followed by a topdecked Timbermare?
Jesse had gotten me to one, but after taking that initial beating, I battled back until I had a solid if not commanding board advantage; I could attack, he couldn’t. I figured I could win in one or two hits if I played out my hand… What am I doing? By the time I realized my mistake, which was like three seconds later, Jesse had topdecked the Timbermare. I had the Stonecloaker waiting, but I had tapped down to one mana, not enough to defend myself; down a game.
In the past, I have been guilty of the old “he can’t have it again” style of strategy, and lost, complaining, to his next topdecked Timbermare. Not this time! I knew how he could win, respected that, and figured out what I would have to do to prevent such an eventuality. I sided in Condemn, which would be an automatic inclusion even with no Timbermare, and turtled up.
The second most seductive mistake in Magic is the trap of efficient mana usage. I once had twelve mana and just because I could I played Wrath of God followed by Akroma, Angel of Wrath. I didn’t think about the fact that my opponent had to Wrath; I ended up down a Wrath and down an Akroma, losing a close one where either would have been welcome. Efficient mana usage is beautiful. It feels right. It taps into our realm of feelings instead of the puzzle of your logical strategy. I have a friend who went to a Gentleman’s Club one night and hit it off with a member of the local talent. “Let’s get out of here,” she said. His eyes bugged out. “The only thing is, I’m supposed to dance all night; if we go, you’re going to have to buy out the rest of the night.” “How much?” “Only about $300.” He jumped at the chance. Wouldn’t you? That just makes you human… and taken. Now imagine you lived in some Judd Apatow universe where jimmy hats and, or with, strangers… are strangers. That is the efficient mana tap. It’s beautiful. It draws you in from the realm of feelings rather than solid, logical, decision-making. It feels right. It’s probably, usually, awful.
I had two Stonecloakers and a Condemn to defend. I used the first Stonecloaker to make a profitable block, and start a race; Condemn on a Spectral Force to put eight counters on my Kavu Predator. Then he played Lignify on my Serra Avenger.
Ah, the naked two-for-one. It might be the most seductive error in all the realms of Dominaria. The efficient mana tap is one thing, but it pales in comparison to the seduction of the naked two-for-one. “Mike,” it calls… “A card, a card… Here is a free card!” I bite. I realize what I am doing in the middle. I go to pick up my Serra Avenger. It’s not too late. If I pick up the Stonecloaker, I look like a jackass. I say out loud that I will lose to a topdecked Timbermare; my Predator should kill in two. I don’t get two. There’s the ‘mare! Vomit-suicide.
Jesse, a gentleman, apologized for the consecutive game ending topdecks. What’s to apologize for? As much as we think of Magic as a game of skill, it is at least 10% luck. Even the great Kai Budde had to get lucky to win some of those innumerable Pro Tours. Never give up. The measure of skill, in many games, is to put yourself in a position to take advantage when you get lucky; I played so that if Jesse got lucky he’d get me. I didn’t deserve to win.
Round 3 — Pickles
For as complicated a game as Magic can be, for all the variables and the thousands of customizations that you can make to your deck, the number of things that actually matter in a match are surprisingly small. Look back on that last match. I didn’t need to get ahead. I didn’t really need to advance my board. I didn’t need to win a battle – I needed to win the war. The war came down to one fight at the Hot Gates. I needed to beat Timbermare, and nothing else mattered because there was no other real way to lose.
In my match against Tankus playing Pickles, I won Game 1 easily, as Predator usually will. In the second game, I got behind a pair of Sower of Temptations, but got my cards back with a big Fiery Justice. The match hinged on a single turn. I had a Calciderm with one counter, a fair sized Tarmogoyf, and a Mystic Enforcer… but only six cards in my graveyard. That turn, I plucked Boom / Bust.
What’s the play?
I’ll tell you what I thought, and what the play shouldn’t have been. I ran out Boom / Bust. My theory was that I didn’t care if it resolved. I wanted Threshold. What’s the problem with this play? Tankus’s permission was limited. All I had to do was pass into my attack. Why? Did you read what my offense was? Very likely he would have had to play Cryptic Command to tap my dudes no matter what. All I did by presenting Boom / Bust was to allow him to counter while tapping the said dudes. If I force him to Cryptic Command my creatures, his mana is tapped and his Cryptic Command is gone. Boom / Bust is almost certain to resolve and he will never, ever, be able to Pickles lock me.
As it turned out, that one turn that he bought, that I actually threw away, was key. A couple of turns later, I was dead to Brine Elemental control. Game 3 I was stuck on two and my hand never materialized. But you know what? It should have never gone to the third game.
The takeaway: You don’t win tournaments making your plays for the play at hand, trading cards in the abstract. You have Have HAVE to look past the play and figure out what the play signifies, how that play fits in to your overall schema, how it helps you craft the board into the shape that you want it to be come the end game. When plays like this are good, it is because they distract the opponent from what matters, they force him to address the game from a different paradigm; this play didn’t do that. I had an abstract idea that if my Boom / Bust resolved, I was going to win, but that I didn’t particularly care if it did. Normally that might not matter, but present Standard describes a metagame where the default hard counter can also tap down an army. I didn’t even think about the fact that he needed to stick the Cryptic Command whether or not I presented a must-counter. In a sense, I just handed Tankus a card on the way to handing him the match.
Interactive Magic is largely about what the opponent has, not what you have. I didn’t play around Cryptic Command – possibly the only realistic card that could have mattered – and that one card hand-off was all he needed to take advantage. This is an important skill to cultivate right now because the next PTQ season is Sealed Deck. In my experience, you get through the Swiss in triple base set Sealed Deck PTQs by figuring out the most common common tricks that people play in the base set, by color, and play so you don’t get wrecked by them. Moreover, this is an important mistake to highlight because it’s one that many players never pick up on. The great edt used to say that most PTQ level players are not qualified to discuss whether or not they made a mistake; many, in the same situation where I blew Game 2, would say “he had it,” without thinking about what that implies, what it means to say. What, for example, does it mean to have an answer when you don’t have to present a particular threat to make it good, or at least appropriate?
I have always held that mistakes are valuable. I don’t think that we as Magic players – or people – really learn or grow without suffering, and most suffering comes from making mistakes. Mistakes can help us in the long run if we embrace them and strive not to make the same ones. Unfortunately I failed miserably at Champs by that measuring stick. However, hopefully you can look at the kinds of mistakes I highlighted in this depressing article in order to evaluate your own mistakes, particularly the ones you find yourself making over and over again. Remember, it doesn’t matter how many battles you win or lose… You have to focus on the war effort, on who gets to check the “W” column at the end of the game.
I hope you play better than I did this year!