Good Players and Bad Habits

Tuesday, January 11th – Adam Prosak has used the Fearless Magical Inventory over the years to vastly improve his game, and he wants to help you out by pointing out mistakes he constantly sees players making that hold them back.

If you ask any player about his or her habits, you’ll get one of two responses.

1) That player will admit to having bad habits.

2) That player is lying.

Sam Stoddard once wrote a fantastic article about bad habits, titled his
Fearless Magical Inventory.

This is one way to go about changing your bad habits and admittedly an effective one. After Stoddard wrote this article, I made a Fearless Magical Inventory for myself and immediately saw results. A few years later, I felt the effects wear off, so I made another one. Again, I saw results. However, this time I wasn’t willing to wait for another lapse in my play to keep my good habits. Instead, I focused on the bad habits around me, resolving to avoid them the same way I’d try to fix my own bad habits.

I felt I’d share some of the things on my list. I respect all of the players on this list, and I asked their permission before writing this article. I’m not some soulless hack.

Putting too much stake into any one individual game

Anthony Avitollo

Anthony is one of my closest friends, and we’re both saddened by the fact that he doesn’t get nearly enough opportunity to sling the magical spells as he’d like. However, this has had a distinctly negative effect on his game. In any given tournament, any negative event lingers far longer than it should. If Anthony has just mulliganed to four, it affects the next game or the match after, because of the importance Anthony puts on doing well in every one of the few events he manages to attend.

Let’s face it; Magic is a game of high variance. While there are plenty of things you can do to affect variance in a game of Magic, none of them have to do with the previous game you played (I doubt Double Take will make an impact on tournament play any time soon). There are 874 million articles – I counted – that will tell you not to tilt and let things carry over. However, there are few that tell you how to avoid tilt. My strategy? I don’t care about wins and losses. If you care about Magic, I can’t really help you. Sorry about that.

Okay, so maybe that’s not it. The real reason I feel like I’ve been able to avoid carryover in between matches and tournaments is that I don’t really playtest. Is that better?

Let’s try this again. Nearly all Magic I play is done in a tournament setting. I only practice for tournaments by playing in other tournaments. This way, everything is not just a means to an end but an end itself. My philosophy professors would be proud. Magic Online is a fantastic way to test in tournaments, although I vastly prefer live tournaments.

“Life is one giant playtest session.”

Playing too slowly

– Alex Kirakofe

Alex is secretly one of the better players in the great state of Arizona. Throughout a given game, Alex generally plays pretty well. However, his mistakes are generally blatant and game losing. Alex also suffers from time-management issues.

Alex plays unbelievably slowly, which can have disastrous effects on your game.

1) Poor clock management. I see players oblivious of their time scenario far too often. I’m always happy when I see two seasoned players hurry towards the end of the clock in order to avoid a draw. Unintentional draws are pretty bad for the most part. It can essentially be a loss in many tournaments, yet Alex never takes time into account when playing his matches.

2) A lack of fundamentals. Although I don’t think Alex suffers from this, many people that play slowly do. If you have good fundamentals, many decisions become much easier. There are simply less variables to account for if you know how to play Magic well. For example, if your opponent is at two life, you should Shock your opponent instead of his creature. Even Gary Wise knows this. A player with absolutely no fundamentals would have to think about this play and thus would play more slowly. This is also manifested in a player who makes basic game actions very slowly. If it takes you more than a split second to play your card once you’ve decided to play your card, it generally means you don’t have any confidence in your decision. If all of your game actions take a few seconds, you probably don’t have any confidence in your play. If you find yourself taking game actions slowly, force yourself to move cards around faster while you’re playing. You’ll be surprised at the results.

3) Overthinking. This is where Alex suffers the most from his slow play. Say you have a “enters the battlefield tapped” land, and your fundamentals might suggest that you should play a tapped land on turn 1 when you do not have one-drops. The majority of the time, playing the tapland is the correct play, and you wouldn’t suffer greatly from simply playing the tapland every time. However, there are corner cases where you may not want to play the tapland, including but not limited to bluffing and opposing mana disruption. If you’re thinking through every scenario on every play, you probably are fighting noise in your head, giving you reasons to ignore the obvious play, which is likely correct. In addition, Magic takes a huge toll on your mental capacity, and your brain capacity is much better served for figuring out more ambiguous situations. I know that Alex feels mentally exhausted after most Magic tournaments, and I have a feeling it’s because he overthinks the small stuff. I can’t think of any other reason.

Expanding your horizons

Cedric Phillips

I won’t lie. I had a tough time picking someone that I respect for this category. I don’t respect the majority of people that suffer from this, but I love me a Cedric.

Cedric has this reputation for being a master of small white creatures, Goblins, and their Charbelcher. What do these have in common? They’re not blue! On repeated occasions, Cedric has told me that he knows who he is and that he’s never had success playing blue decks. As good as Cedric is at attacking for two, he’s equally bad at drawing cards or countering spells. Cryptic Command isn’t Cedric’s best friend. While Cedric is a very good player, he’s still limited in his deck decisions. He’s sometimes forced to play inferior decks based on his refusal to learn blue cards. Most of the time, however, he just chooses to play Charbelcher rationally, despite viable options all around.

While “not playing blue” is one limitation that Cedric has, it’s not the only possible limitation people put on themselves. Cube drafting has expanded my horizons greatly. Cube has taught me to build coherent decks on the fly with all singletons, which is a skill that carries over well to my Limited game. Cube has also taught me to find synergies among cards that have a very high power level, which obviously helps when building Constructed decks.

Managing a variety of resources is probably the most important skill in Legacy. While not as important in Standard, managing cards, mana, and life total is useful. Playing Legacy has taught me to pay attention to these things. Even a weird format such as Mental Magic Lands* teaches people to solve strange puzzles using everything available to them.

When people say that they don’t want to play a particular format because they don’t know the cards, I shed a solitary tear. Developing Magic skills helps you as a Magic player, regardless of how you obtain them. Biases are fine – I prefer a deck with a ton of card drawing and selection. However, don’t be a slave to your biases. If the card drawing in any format isn’t good, then you need the ability to play a variety of other strategies.

Understanding variance

– Alex Tamblyn

Some of you may know Alex’s brother, Mitchell, who was once the “Future of American Magic.” Fortunately for LSV, GerryT, and the rest of “current American Magic,” Mitchell was called to spread the good word and put his Magic career on hiatus. Alex is left to bear the burden of making a name of the Tamblyn family in the Magical community. However, Alex has this little problem when it comes to Magic.

He keeps adding colors to his decks.

If you read
my last article,

you’ll know that I advocate streamlined decks with fewer colors. They’re simply too many benefits to playing fewer colors. However, Alex likes to splash all over the place in Constructed. Some of the hits include:

– When Jund dominated Standard at this time last year, Alex decided to play white in his Jund deck….by taking out all the nonbasics so that he wouldn’t get touched by Goblin Ruinblaster.

– In the current Standard, Alex has decided that his Boros deck can’t live without Distortion Strike for his Kiln Fiends and Assault Strobes. To make it more consistent, Preordain also makes an appearance.

– His current Standard deck seeks to cast cards that cost 2WWW, 2UU, and 2GG. Let’s just say that his Lotus Cobras do some good work in this deck.

– Back in Time Spiral Draft, Alex would repeatedly draft 4/5-color Sliver decks with 1-2 fixers.

While Alex has had a reasonable amount of success with these interesting creations, he has also played more “not real” Magic games that anyone I know. The issue with these decks is that they create a huge amount of variance. When his decks work, they obliterate opponents. In general, Alex’s decks have extremely good nut draws to reward him for sacrificing consistency. However, if your deck has a high fail rate, you’re simply giving away a ton of percentage points in every match.

I’m the anti-Tamblyn, often to a fault. I’ll choose consistency over power at all times, and occasionally I’ll have underpowered decks. The SCG Invitational was a prime example of this. I played a U/G Vengevine deck that was extremely consistent at flooding the board with a bunch of random dudes, eventually. Unfortunately, playing a bunch of dudes didn’t help me win against more powerful decks. Basically, when both my decks and my opponents’ decks worked, they were at a significant advantage that I generally couldn’t overcome.

The lesson here is that there’s a balance that should be achieved between power and consistency. I’m the most successful when I don’t have to sacrifice power for the consistency I desire.

Some ways to increase your consistency:

– Play lands that have special effects. Whenever possible, I want to avoid a mana base of all mana. Tectonic Edge, Valakut, and the manlands are the best way to do this in Standard.

– Avoid cards that don’t work except in combination with other cards in your deck, especially if those cards are bad as well. A good example of this is Kuldotha Rebirth. Not only do you need an artifact to sacrifice to the Rebirth, you generally need a card that pumps the tokens, such as a Goblin Bushwhacker or a Goblin Chieftain. Everyone knows what happens when you draw a Memnite, a Panic Spellbomb, and a Goblin Chieftain.

– Avoid cards that are only good in specific parts of the game. While some top decks play these cards, they do so to increase their power level at the expense of their consistency. Take a deck like Mono-Green Eldrazi. You really want the Joraga Treespeakers and Overgrown Battlements in the early game, but they’re pretty terrible late in the game. On the flip side, Emrakul is likely to rot in your hand for an extremely long time. I’m not suggesting you cut either of these cards from your Eldrazi Green deck, but keep in mind that the deck is fairly inconsistent because of these. Even a deck like U/B sacrifices some consistency for power. In this case, Inquisition of Kozilek is pretty bad on turn 6, while Grave Titan is bad until turn 6. U/B attempts to bridge the consistency gap with…

– Play cards that allow you to manipulate what you draw. Preordain is the king in this department, offering a ton of consistency for a small drop in power.

– Make development decisions based on worst-case scenarios. If you’re Preordaining, err towards keeping a land that you’ll need in the next few turns instead of hoping your deck delivers another land. If getting your Lotus Cobra killed means that you don’t have a powerful play on turn 3, consider casting the Explore instead.

It’s easiest to avoid bad habits when you see someone practice the bad habit and witness the negative consequences. If you’re noticing your own bad habits, perhaps a Fearless Magical Inventory is in store for you. However, making an inventory of other people’s bad habits is equally as valuable so that you can avoid them.

Adam Prosak

*Mental Magic Lands is played by the same rules as normal Mental Magic, except that all the cards in the stack are lands. Dust Bowl is banned for balance issues, Riftstone Portal for complexity issues, and deck searching is allowed. Some friends of mine and I have thought about correct lines of play and still have yet to figure it out.