How The Pros F**k Up

I witnessed a match where one player had a Nantuko Shade and enough mana to attack and finish off his opponent; said opponent was tapped out and had no blockers left on the board after an Edict. The name pro did not attack for the win, instead keeping two mana open in case of an Aether Burst that could not be cast. And yet his play is a lesson to all of us wannabes.

Apparently emergency errata had been issued.

Zombie Infestation



Discard two cards from your hand for the hell of it, just to fuel a Circular Logic. You could, y’know, put a Zombie token into play if you feel like it, but that’s really your call. Up to you. Or not.

Now me, I had thought the point of Zombie Infestation was to create zombie tokens – preferably after a big Upheaval. But what did I know? Here I was at Grand Prix – Cleveland, watching a match with interest as an Infestation player dropped two cards from his hand to get him some of that luscious, luscious madness booty action… And then forgot all about the Zombie tokens.

Once, I could understand. Twice? A little sketchy.

But this utter stick playing Infestation did this not just once, but three separate times.

The other player either didn’t notice this scrub’s pathetic error… Or cheerfully forgot to mention it. And it wasn’t really in his interest to mention it, because the board was now clear for his Wild Mongrel to charge on through for two points of damage.

In other words, this idiot left himself vulnerable to two points of Mongrel damage, and possibly more, because he forgot about an effect that was the original point of playing the card.


But hey, that didn’t bother this crazy, card-rewriting sonuvabitch; he won his match – how lucky! – and then proceeded to walk off, completely unaware of his triple-error.

Of course, at the time, he was at the top three tables, somewhere between rounds seven and eleven. And yes, this stick was a name pro. Someone you’ve heard of.*

I wandered on back to the Feature Match Report Center at Grand Prix – Cleveland, which looked a lot like the underground base in War Games – lots of twirling red lights, hunkered-down technicians typing furiously, all under the command of a pipe-smoking Josh Bennett.

He looked so noble, what with the sunglasses and the pipe stem clamped between his teeth – like a lankier Patton.

“Hey, Josh,” I said dazedly, still unsure about what I had just seen.”I just watched a pro make three kind of colossal mistakes.”

He exhaled an angry puff of Erik Nording’s Hunter Blend Tobacco in my face, exasperated.”What happened?”

I explained.

“Goddammit, Steinmetz!” he snarled.”You should know better! If you see a situation that affects the game state, call a judge! I always forget to tell you damned newbie reporters; if something’s hinky, you can’t let it slide! It always comes up – why don’t you idiots know any better?

He stormed off, Thunderbolt Ross-style.

Josh”I’m Not Bennett, Nor Am I Rappaport Either” Claytor, who had done coverage at many more events than I had, piped up.

“It happens a lot,” he said shyly, as if revealing a Big Secret.”They always tell you to call a judge, but I generally don’t; sometimes I’m just wrong about the game state.”

“Are you usually wrong, though?” I asked, wondering whether maybe I had missed something.

He thought a moment, deciding whether to be honest.

“No,” he sighed.”I ask around afterwards. I usually had it right… And the crowd notices, too. It doesn’t happen that often, but it happens more often than you’d think. At least once an event. They just get things wrong.”

Now it was my turn to think.

“Should I write about mistakes like that when they happen?” I asked.

No!” said a gruff voice – and EDT, grizzled dinosaur and writer of better articles than I ever will be capable of, whirled around on the chair to face me.”It’s not our job to make these guys look bad; it’s our job to make them look like heroes, Ferrett. If they make mistakes, unless they’re game-altering, we don’t mention them.”

“Even if they’re obvious?”

EDT chewed the inside of his cheek.

“No,” he concluded, frowning.”We want people to have someone to look up to. They don’t need to read about a thousand f**kups. It happens.”

He turned back to his laptop, hammering out the next installment in his match coverage.

The day went on – but this time, I watched the pro tables like I watched NASCAR racing… I was secretly hoping for the big wrecks. Every time a pro laid down a card, I thought,”Is this when they’ll screw it up?

I wanted to watch the metaphorical wheel go careening into the audience; I wanted to witness mistakes that were legendary.

And sure enough, wheels flew off – no, wheels took flight.

I witnessed a match where one player had a Nantuko Shade and enough mana to attack and finish off his opponent; said opponent was tapped out and had no blockers left on the board after an Edict.

The name pro did not attack for the win, instead keeping two mana open in case of an Aether Burst that could not be cast.

That was the worst case, but I also witnessed players walk into plays that I saw coming – me! – and witnessed plays that I would not have made based on their hand and the game state. I watched players not go for the throat when they could have won, kept hands I would have mulliganed, and in general screw up on an infrequent but fairly regular basis. They didn’t all happen at the Feature Matches; some of them happened out of the spotlight. But they happened.

And everyone knows how bad it is.

Bennett knew that screwups often enough that it was standard procedure to tell match reporters that they should report any major errors they see. Josh Claytor, who had done fairly extensive reporting at pro-level events before, had seen enough pros bite the bullet to be blasé about it. And EDT? Well, he had a definite opinion that it should never be mentioned because these guys are heroes.

In other words, everyone knows… But nobody’s saying. You don’t ever see”The Top 10 Most Notable F**kups” as a sidebar article at any major event’s coverage – and I know someone thinks about writing it every time. You don’t see,”Pro X misplayed Spell X here, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him.”

Yet it happens all – the – frickin’ – time.

And here’s the thing:

I didn’t write about it, either.

The pros doing coverage are clued-in enough to realize the mistakes their friends are making, but they have to live with these guys every day; they’re not going to embarrass them in front of the world by pointing out their harsh mistakes for a couple of thousand scrubs to see.

And people like me? Well, I chickened out. I was afraid to make an”obvious” point in print… Only to find that Pro X actually had a solid strategy in mind that I was too dim to understand. Hey, maybe not attacking for fatal damage with the Nantuko Shade was part of an elaborate strategy that I was just too random to get! Maybe the”obvious” play that I would have made was really stupid – and, in fact, the obvious plays I would have made were actually fairly terrible about half of the time, so I couldn’t be sure what solid strategy was.

So I didn’t say anything either. Sure, in my match reports, I mention a couple of judge calls just for kicksies… But I didn’t say,”Pro X sucked the big moose weenie here.”**

Could have; didn’t. And so the screwups never get mentioned in print.

And that’s a shame.

Because I have to disagree with EDT here; I do want my pros to be heroes. I clap my hands, believing that Tinkerbell is alive and that EDT can take Boston.*** I shout when Kai takes yet another tourney – because if Magic’s still around ten years from now, I want to say I was there.

But Magic’s a complex game: Every novice faces a learning curve that makes Mount Everest look like Kate Moss’s chest. And when we start off, the mistakes are legion.

We get frustrated. A year after we’ve seriously decided to Go For The Gold, when we’ve occasionally made that PTQ Top 8 here and there, we all ask ourselves the same question:

“It’s been a year. Shouldn’t I have stopped f**king up by now?”

When people ask me what I do for a living, I say – quite honestly -“I manage a website that gives play tips for the most complicated game in the entire world.” And I’m not kidding. Chess is frickin’ Chutes and Ladders compared to Magic… Seriously. The only reason we don’t have entire books written about Magic in the same way that you find an entire”Chess” section at your local Borders is because Magic changes too quickly for books to be any use.

Check that: Magic is too complicated to write books about.

That’s a pretty tall order.

Every one of you who plays this game should feel smart for simply understanding it; going 2-4 at a tourney is still an accomplishment. Sure, you might have lost to Tog again at the local PTQ… But on the other hand, you:

  • Understood the subset of cards needed for said PTQ;
  • Knew the interactions and strengths of said cards;
  • Created a deck that had some sort of strategy behind it;
  • Comprehended, at least vaguely, the four hundred pages of rules that accompany Magic;
  • Realized that certain rules strategies – like holding instants until the last possible second – maximize your potential plays;
  • Knew what other decks were likely to show up, and the basic strategies behind them;
  • Played your deck in a strategical fashion, albeit possibly suboptimally, in order to try to facilitate a win.

Hand frickin’ Michael Jordan your MBC deck and ask him to play it – I dare you. Get Stephen Hawking to bust out his mad U/G tech.

They can’t.

Magic’s so complex that nobody understands it completely. People don’t get into rules arguments about how to move the chess pieces, or what valid letters constitute a word at an official Scrabble tournament… But right now, as we speak, a raging debate is going on as to whether you can discard a Riftstone Portal to get the white mana in order to pay the mana cost for a Vengeful Dreams.

Bobby Fischer may be a Chess God, but he can kiss my frickin’ butt when it comes to Magic.

Think about that; I, a relative novice whose sum total of expertise is a single PTQ win in Futtbuck, Alaska, am fifteen thousand times better than chess champion Bobby Fischer. It would take him a year to catch up to where I am.

But there’s this illusion that once you start getting Feature Matches, once you climb to the top levels of pro events, you suddenly stop making stupid errors altogether.

That really hurts the game.

I’m telling you: The pros screw up. This is not an insult; it is, instead, saying that Magic is so hellaciously convoluted that it would be astonishing if they did not screw up on a regular basis. The laws of physics and brainpower do not suddenly start bending when Finkel takes the floor.

I think Magic would be a lot healthier if we all admitted that hey, our collective goal is to make sure we play with no errors – but much like we all really try to get a hundred percent of all airline flights land safely, nobody really ever does it.

And realistically? Nobody ever will.

Even if you play flawlessly, there’s always a sideboard call you could have made better, a better metagame choice in the works. Magic is a game that’s loaded with so many logical gaps that even Pitfall Harry couldn’t jump ’em all.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try for perfection – you want to come as close as you can – but it does mean that we can stop beating ourselves up when we don’t get it.

Because we can’t.

I witnessed Gab Tsang thunder his way to the finals of Grand Prix – Cleveland, losing in the third game thanks to a straight fifteen-land, no spell run that was so unfair that babies in Sri Lanka are still crying in outrage about it… And he played the crap out of everyone. He was brilliant. He bluffed and puffed and blew everyone’s deck down, and dammit – Valentine, as an amateur, I hate to say this – he deserved the win that day. Gab was not only on fire, he was in danger of starting his own personal Big Bang. When his match was over, I handed him a copy of my hotel key and told him what room I was staying in.****

He won because he made fewer mistakes than the men around him that day.

The pros screw up, Charlie, and sometimes they do it hard. They screw up less often than you or I… But they still screw up. Regularly. Their mistakes may be subtler, their glaring gaffes may be a lot farther apart, but they’re as human as you or I.

So take that lesson to heart: Just because your play wasn’t perfect doesn’t mean that you can’t go pro.

There’s less of a line between thee and they than you might think.

Signing off,

The Ferrett

[email protected]

The Here Edits This Here Site Here Guy

Watch for the utterly-new StarCity, coming Monday to a browser near you!

* – Don’t ask me who. I might tell you. Actually, given that I want every pro in the world to write for me, I probably wouldn’t.

** – My wife said,”You’ll never get away with printing that.” I said,”Watch me. I’m the editor.” Also note that I am not specifically referring to any pro who I reported on – and note that once the quarterfinals started, the silly mistakes vanished. At least as far as I saw. Everyone got their game on.

*** – I love EDT. I’ll be writing my tourney report for Cleveland, where I came in a close second-place finish, but I was so happy when I met him for the first time and he thought we already knew each other. I said,”No, we hadn’t met.” He said,”Well, I feel like I know you from all of your snarky editorial inserts.”

I can ask for no greater tribute.

**** – And he didn’t punch me in the face when, during my quarterfinals match coverage with him against Rob Dougherty, I accidentally knocked my soda over some of their tokens in the middle of the match. Boy, if you want to know how to feel utterly stupid, just try it sometime. Once again, guys, I’m sorry.