Flow of Ideas – Stuck In The Middle With An Excuse

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Monday, June 28th – If you’ve been to a competitive event before, no doubt you’ve heard people complain. You probably have even done it yourself. Especially in recent formats with swingy strategies and mechanics, there are some times you can legitimately complain. If you don’t have the right draw to combat theirs, you’re just going to lose and there’s nothing you could have done about it. Or is there?

If you’ve been to a competitive event before, no doubt you’ve heard people complain. You probably have even done it yourself. Especially in recent formats with swingy strategies and mechanics, there are some times you can legitimately complain. They can have the perfect cascades, hit all of their blind counterbalance flips, or even create an indestructible 20/20 on the first turn. If you don’t have the right draw to combat theirs, you’re just going to lose and there’s nothing you could have done about it.

… Or is there?

The truth is, the vast majority of complaints are just excuses that overshadow the actual reason you lost. They’re not constructive, and can only hinder you as a player.

Some of the best Magic advice I’ve ever taken and applied came from Jon Sonne. Shortly after his victory with Goblins at Grand Prix: Philadelphia, he went on to say this regarding the topic of improving as a player:

“…Learn from your mistakes. Every time you lose, you have to look for the reason why you lost and not complain about it. You pretty much made a mistake if you lost, most likely. It was either playing incorrectly, not mulliganing, poor deck choice, or just a lack of testing.”

Have a moment to take that in. If you lost, it was because of something you did.

If you lost, it was your fault.

At some point, you messed up. But where, and why? You don’t remember a mistake. It was out of your control.

Let’s dial it back a few years and step aside for a second. You’re playing Super Mario Brothers — the original — and, navigating the level pretty well. All of a sudden, you see a goomba on the horizon at the edge of the screen. You’re moving too fast, and you’re not stopping now. You reach for the jump button to hurdle past that guy and then — WHAM! You just ran right smack dab into that goomba. A goomba, of all things! The lowest form of enemy! And there you were, getting past the bullet bills and the Hammer Brothers and even the lakitu and all its spinies when bam, the lowliest durdle of durdles in Bowser’s platoon sent you back to square one.

You tried to hit jump, but, for whatever reason, that no-good smarmy plumber that is consistently the bane of your existence just didn’t jump. The person behind you makes an offhand comment about dying to a goomba after all that work, and, without fail, as if coded in to our human instincts, you twirl around, and tell them that you did hit jump —but the NES just didn’t recognize it! Slowly, you begin to believe that too. Your demeanor changes to reflect your frustration with the irresponsive controller. You think that’s what happened. But in some chamber on the inside, you know that maybe, just maybe, you might have tapped jump a little lighter. Maybe you were just a few seconds too late. You had yourself — not a faulty system — to blame.

Let’s step back to Magic.

In late 2001, John Rizzo wrote Stuck In The Middle With Bruce. His major point is that there is something — a Bruce — inside all of us that wants you to do things that will actively hinder you. Just think about that. Even when part of your mind knows you should be thinking, believing, or doing something else, you, on some level, consciously choose to ignore that part. In short, you externalize the real problem.

You know you could have done better on that essay if you had started it earlier, but it feels better to blame it on your teacher’s grading style.

You know you could have made it four more yards into the endzone if you hadn’t tripped, but it feels better to blame it on uneven Astroturf.

You know you could have avoided that goomba if you had just been able to hit jump a little faster, but it’s easier to blame it on the game system.

You knew it was risky cutting a land from your deck the night before the tournament, but it’s easier to point out you were mana screwed two matches in a row.

You know you could have won that game if you had just pumped your Putrid Leech on turn 2, but it’s easier to blame it on drawing four lands in a row while he was sitting at just one life.

Of course it’s not your fault. Isn’t that right, Bruce?

Right, Bruce?

You seldom even hear the alternative story from anyone — including yourself. The scary part is, at some point of saturation, your subconscious even begins to hide what really happened from your conscious. Your sense of realizing what is and what isn’t your fault begins to dull over time. Slowly, all you see is the grim end situation where you had a run of bad luck and not the chance you had five minutes earlier to make that string of luck not matter.

Poor luck? Too bad. Make your own luck.

I was once an excuse-maker. My opponents would always topdeck just the right card to win, I would mulligan twice and lose because of it, I would end the game just scraps short of what I needed to win. It wasn’t until Sonne’s words inspired me to reconsider my play that I was able to scrape the rust off the gears of my own ability to self-check.

My process was very simple. Every time I played a game on Magic Online, I would watch the replay repeatedly until I found a play which turned the rest of the game into a cruel joke with the punch line being me losing.

When I finally saw what was happening, it was like opening a third eye that had been sealed shut, or emerging naked from a vat like in The Matrix.

In almost every game, I could pinpoint what actually caused me to lose the game.

Yes, there were the rare occasions when there would just be nothing to see. There were times when I mulliganed correctly, made the right play at each turn, and still would lose. But far more often, there was one small action I could have changed to push through that final point of damage, or even just survive for one more draw step so I could be provided with the opportunity to runner runner myself out of the situation.

Just as Sonne said, my losses were my own fault.

If you don’t do everything right, if you don’t give yourself every chance, if you don’t think over the ramifications of each action five turns down the road, if you don’t find a way to take every draw step possible to find the Morphling you need to win the game, then you can really only blame yourself.

There is no room for laziness in competitive Magic. Taking shortcuts will get you killed.

Let’s start looking through the reality behind excuses with what might be the most common excuse of all time.

The Excuse:

I was mana screwed / I was mana flooded

The Reality:

I mulliganed poorly, didn’t build my deck properly, and/or didn’t shuffle enough

People love to blame their lands. They’re the most fickle aspect of Magic, and as a result are the most convenient scapegoat. Draw the right number, and you’ll do great. Draw the wrong number, and you’ll do poorly. It can seem like it’s all up to luck, and sometimes it is. You can keep three lands with a Wall of Omens on the draw in a deck with 28 lands and still miss your fourth land drop.

More often than not, though, lands are just masking the real problem: not realizing when you should make a change, but don’t. Did you keep a two-land hand? You should have known not seeing a land was a possibility. Did you keep a six-land hand figuring you would draw more spells? There’s no guarantee to that.

How about with your decks? People do not play enough lands in general. When you want to hit your first five land drops and choose to play only 25 lands, you’re just asking for fate to lower her cloaked hand and stack your deck against you.

On top of all that, one of the largest crimes is just not shuffling enough. . It’s very easy to be lazy with shuffling because it’s one of the most boring aspects on Magic. Just as if you don’t exercise you shouldn’t be surprised when you put on weight, if you shuffled poorly and get stuck with mana clumps then there’s no surprise when you mulligan twice.
If you watch the games greatest players, one thing they almost all have in common is they shuffle a ridiculous amount. Mike Turian, for example, was notorious for always making sure to shuffle longer than his opponent. Zac Hill is much the same. Every time I have seen Paulo and Luis play in a tournament, they shuffle vigorously. You are given three minutes for pregame shuffling. Use them.

But more than that, it’s not just all about shuffling at the start of a match. Players are actually pretty good about that. The round hasn’t started, so you can take your time to shuffle well. But after suffering a loss game 1 and trying to put it out of your mind, or when shuffling for a tight game 3, a lot of players seem to chop off shuffling time. Even worse, a player will draw their opening hand, have mana problems, ship it back, then only shuffle for 20 seconds and present again. Which do you think is more likely in this situation — seeing another hand with mana problems, or seeing a perfectly balanced hand?

Shuffling well reduces a large segment of mana related difficulties.

The Excuse:

I drew poorly and/or they drew well

The Reality:

I played poorly

As with mana problems, sometimes you do legitimately just draw poorly. Sometimes, they nut draw you and there’s little you can do about it. However, also as with mana problems, that is seldom the case.

Let’s examine the different scenarios.

In the case of you drawing poorly early game, it probably just stems from a poor mulligan decision. Your opening seven cards should be enough to get you through the first few turns alone.

In the case of you drawing poorly late game, the first thing you have to think about is what you could have done differently earlier in the game. Did your opponent end the game at a low life total? Maybe you made a combat mistake early on. Would having an extra creature turn the tides around? Maybe you attacked or blocked poorly somewhere and fell into a trick. If that’s the case, yes, you’re drawing poorly now, but you wouldn’t even be in this situation if you would have just played a little better earlier.

In the case of them drawing well early game and having what seems to be an insurmountable draw, maybe if you would have thought through your options just a little better and made the right choices at every turn you could have squeaked out one more draw step. Sure, maybe you would have to draw four exact cards in a row and they would have to have to draw four cards that didn’t matter in a row. But if you keep giving yourself these chances, eventually you will reach a game where it does matter. If you don’t give yourself these chances, you can’t blame luck because you aren’t giving the game its full chance to play out and benefit you.

In the case of them drawing well late game, could you have done something earlier to prevent the game from being in this position? Was there a removal spell you blew too early, or some points of damage you could have snuck in?

What you have to keep in mind is each game of Magic is a developing structure. That is, the decision you make now will affect the game in four turns from now. The trade you make on turn 2 will change how combat proceeds for the rest of the game

You also have to consider how you built your deck. Perhaps you cut maindeck cards that were good against their archetype. Perhaps you should have sideboarded/drafted more cards that were good against them. At some point, you cut off your options.

Also, as is the case with mana problems, drawing poorly can be a result of bad shuffling technique.

The Excuse:

I faced bad matchups

The Reality:

I predicted the metagame wrong, played a bad deck, and/or built my deck wrong

Sometimes, you test for weeks, look over the archetypes everyone is playing, come to all of the right conclusions, and then face the only two Howling Mine decks in the room and go 0-2. More commonly, you messed up somewhere in deckbuilding.

The metagame is always shifting. A lot of players will come to the same conclusions you will. A lot of players will also try and go a level above the conclusions they think people will reach. If U/W Control is the most popular deck one week and you decide to play U/W next week, don’t be surprised if Time Sieve has a decent showing the week after — and if Thought Hemorrhage shows up in some Jund sideboards.

On the flip side you can try and ace the metagame by being the Time Sieve player, but just because there was a lot of U/W last week doesn’t mean the Jund will go away. Only the small portion of PTQ players who actually consider metagame implications on a week to week basis will have made that leap. You can still expect to see plenty of the most popular decks.

Predicting the metagame wrong is one thing, but sometimes you just play a bad deck. Whether you’re just misinformed about how good it is, haven’t tested it enough, or otherwise, it’s easy to face two bad matchups when two of your worst matchups are two of the most popular decks. I’ve done it, you’ve done it, and even Paulo has done it. It happens nonetheless.

Finally, maybe it’s just because you weren’t sideboarding enough for them. Just because you have a bad matchup doesn’t mean it has to stay that way with enough sideboarding.

The Excuse:

I lost a good matchup

The Reality:

I played poorly and/or didn’t test enough

As with any matchup, there are always ways you can lose good matchups. However, you need to be winning the matches you’re supposed to win. If you’re a 70% or more favorite in the matchup and you lose, something almost assuredly went wrong.

One reason is that you just played poorly. Often when you know you’re favored, you can feel like it is okay to start being sloppy. Obviously you don’t intentionally try to make mistakes, but you might keep a sketchier hand than normal, or you might not think for as long during combat, or you might begin to daydream about how great it’s going to be to draw into Top 8 next round. In reality, all you’re doing is letting percentage points slip away into their column, turning a 70-30 matchup into a 60-40 one — or worse. You make one poor combat decision and give them an extra turn, and before you know it the tides have turned.

On the other hand, your data might just be bad. What made you think this was a good matchup? If you were playtesting, maybe your opponent was just a weaker player. Maybe your stock list wasn’t up to date, and you were missing new innovations. Maybe the article you read was inaccurate. People claim ridiculous things about matchups all the time. Unless you have tested both sides yourself and know for sure how it should be playing out, the matchup might be far different than you imagine.

The Excuse:

I had a bad sealed pool

The Reality:

I could have built my sealed pool better

I have seen a lot of sealed pools from a lot of different sets over the years, and I have seen very few that are complete abominations. They exist, but they are so few and far between that I would be hard-pressed to believe any given player would end up with an unplayable pool each week of the PTQ season. Yet, that is often how players try and make it seem.

Most of the time when players claim to have a bad sealed pool it just means they didn’t know how to build it correctly.

Think about that.

Everyone has different card evaluations. Perhaps you dismissed a color when it actually had enough playable cards. Maybe you ignored some synergies. Maybe you weren’t being scrappy enough, and finding new ways to attack the format. There’s a chance you might have not thought through how your deck would actually play out.

Pretty much any sealed deck has the potential for you to make Top 8 packed inside. You just have to harness it.

The Excuse:

The person next to me in my draft cut me off

The Reality:

I didn’t pay enough attention to signals, know the common runs, and/or stay open enough

Getting cut off is at the point where it’s almost a running joke. Whenever someone ends up with a bad draft deck, it’s because they were “cut off.” Most of the time though, being cut off is really just their neighbor’s way of saying “I’m in this color, don’t take it.”

By the time a color has completely dried up and you’re in the third pack, it’s too late. You have to figure out what color your neighbor is taking earlier on. One of the ways to do this is to know the common runs. Another is to carefully pay attention to what is missing.

Alan Comer said, “it’s funny how everyone always focuses on passing clear signals but so few focus on reading them.” Consider that when you are drafting.

Finally, if you are cut off then it could be because you were being stubborn and not being open enough. You have to be flexible. If you see something being cut off, you can’t just cling onto your first pick removal spell like a doll during an earthquake. Many drafts are ruined this way. If you watch a lot of top level drafters draft, they keep themselves open. Often, you don’t even realize they’ve set themselves up to change colors until they start to, and then it seems so obvious. When you’re the one drafting, it isn’t always as apparent.

It’s always amazing to watch the best players play Magic. Every play they make seems so obvious, yet many build toward the game’s end board state in ways that we may not even consider. So many players bemoan their luck when there is so clearly a high amount of skill involved in this game. Excuses are just ways to convince yourself that the best players couldn’t have won in your shoes. They’re a crutch that will plateau your play, and prevent yourself from being one of the greats. If you can chuck away those crutches and learn to stand on your own, you can begin to fight back against a bombardment of small mistakes.

I’d love to talk about your experience with realizing the excuses you’ve made in the past, as well as the other excuses players use that I didn’t bring up. Please go ahead and either post in the forums or e-mail me at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com. Hopefully I’ll talk to you soon!

Gavin Verhey
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic Online, Lesurgo everywhere else