“Sleight of Hand is amazing! It refers to cheating and it lets you manipulate your library!”
– Ollie Schneider, English National Champion 1998 and 2001
Last week, I had a very upsetting experience. I sat down to read the daily articles on StarCityGames.com, and the first one that I read was just simply wrong. This troubled me, as I still have a trusting faith in articles that I read on the internet about Magic, dating back to when I first started to read the Dojo and copied all the decks on it, assuming falsely that decks such as “Dark Merfolk” and “Squandered Stasis” deck were, in fact, any good, instead of terrible rubbish likely to get me crushed at the local Guild of Melee and Magic midweek tournaments.
From reading the forums, it seems that quite a number of you folks had comments to make about the article I mean. Here’s my take on this issue, and as an incentive to read it, I’ll throw in a free guide at the end on to how to win at every tournament you enter.
First of all, I’ve read all of Michael’s Star City articles, and they’ve been excellent. And on one very big issue, he is absolutely correct. If you want to maximize the percentage of games and matches that you win in tournaments, then follow every piece of Michael’s advice. It is also a useful primer that explains things that are worth being aware of, and well worth reading for that alone. But there’s a lot more to the issue than that.
The advantage that you get in any particular tournament from what Michael suggests is pretty marginal. The example that Michael cites about counting his opponent’s deck is a pretty extreme one (he actually got a game win, which will happen very infrequently even if you get every one of your opponents’ decklists checked), and the difference is between a game win and a game played between Affinity and 75-card Equipment White Weenie. Even allowing for the fact that a tournament like Regionals is decided by a small number of games (you only play 20-30, and most of those are decided by people’s draws, mana screw and that sort of thing), it’s tough to argue that but for “being a jerk” Michael would have failed to make Nationals.
I appreciate that Michael was making the point that these techniques are ones which will produce dividends over a large number of matches and tournaments. I was interested when he wrote that, “When I began my Magic career, I spent my tournaments going 1-3 or 0-2 drop quite a lot. In those times, I was rules lawyered, cheated, and sleazed out of games. In other games, I won through mental toughness and a little luck, and in others I just plain lost to better players. At the end of the day, my ratings history doesn’t differentiate between the three.” His claim is that these techniques helped him go from being 0-2 drop guy to qualifying for Nationals, something which my editor apparently agrees with. I don’t agree with either of them.
When I started out playing in tournaments, there were a group of people who were the best players. They all knew each other, shared decks and usually were the people who I had to beat in order to do well. I imagine that this is true of any Magic playing community. It’s often been said, but the best way to improve your Magic skills is to play against people who are a bit better than you, so that you learn new things, pick up advice, and over time raise your level of play to their standard. Since I wanted to do well at these tournaments and to win more at Magic, I therefore wanted to get to test with this group of good players. Quite possibly a number of you are in exactly the same position now.
Thing is, getting a reputation as someone who gets wins by exploiting the fact that new players don’t always know the rules isn’t a good way to break into that group. Being pleasant to play against, practicing your decks, reading Star City every day – these are things which will make sure that you get the chance to chat to and test with the good players in your area. Certainly that was my experience, as over the following few months I got to know and to test with this group of players, many of whom are still good friends, and during the time when my playtest group was the best in England, the people who we got to know and invited to test with us were those who had some skill at playing and were nice people to spend time with. Such people included the funny man with a beard and a homemade mono-Green deck who is currently National Champion, has designed multiple Pro Tour-winning decks, has himself made Pro Tour and Worlds Top 8’s without ever “being a jerk” – John Ormerod, and another former National Champion, Ben Ronaldson, both of whom got to the top through a mix of skill and hard work, but never by calling judges to exploit a small rules error by an inexperienced opponent or doing other things which involve behaving in a way which, even if allowed by the rules, would be considered unethical by most people.
You should, of course, make sure that you know the rules and what the cards do and that you play in accordance with the rules, de-sideboard correctly and get your deck registration correct (though I did chuckle at the forum contributor who said that anyone who misregistered their deck was obviously not a serious competitor. I remember Ollie Schneider, twice former English National Champion, regularly used to pick up penalties for misregistering his decks). It is a lot more fun to play against someone who “plays tight”, knows what all the cards do and against whom the issue of calling a judge for minor infractions does not ever apply than against someone who is clueless. But if you are the player whose match finishes ten minutes after everyone else’s with all the judges involved and the inexperienced player who you’ve managed to beat by calling him on enough rules infractions storms off vowing never to play in tournaments again, then in the long run that will do you more damage than the advantage you gain from that match win.
It seems at times from reading guides to preventing cheating that you’d expect every other opponent at a tournament to be a rampant cheater, looking to put you off your game. I’m always pleasantly surprised when I go and play in a tournament what utter nonsense this is and how pleasant pretty much every opponent you play against is. If you go with a presumption that people have come to play honestly and fairly, then you will rarely be wrong. There are a few cheats, often people who combine cheating with the perfectly legitimate within the rules tactics which Michael wrote about. Occasionally you’ll be the victim of a cheat, but in the long run, Magic, and particularly tournament Magic, really is a game where the good guys win.
I’ve lost count of the number of Pro Tour reports that I’ve read which have as an aside when the author has played someone from Japan and noted what a pleasure it was because he was sure that they wouldn’t try to stack their deck or do anything shady. Keeping on the look out constantly for opportunities to use the rules and call a judge makes the game less enjoyable and detracts from the point of trying to outplay your opponent and win the game by playing in the spirit it was intended. If you’re playing tournament Magic for the money, then objectively you should get a job or play some game with bigger payouts, because for the same amount of time and effort you could make a lot more money. So the reasons for going along to compete and win tournaments involve some combination of the pleasure of winning individual matches and competitions, the enjoyment of playing the game, the chance to hang out with friends and make new friends, and to go to different countries and places to play Magic and the respect gained from being acknowledged as a good player. You do not need to be a jerk to accomplish any of these things, and if you look at the people in Magic who are most respected on these overall criteria, they are people who have a reputation as nice people.
I understand the temptation when you have tested really hard, when you desperately want to qualify for Nationals or a Pro Tour, and when your opponent who fits neither of these criteria is beating you to see if there is anything in the tournament rule book which might turn the tables. But the difference between a genuine play error (someone declares an attack, and then after they have passed priority tries to change their mind and assign different attackers – in which situation it is quite right and actually important not to allow a take back), and something which wouldn’t alter the course of the game isn’t in practice a difficult one. If you are about to do some stunt along these lines, but feel it goes against your honor or conscience or whatever, then err on the side of being nice. There will be the odd occasion where doing so doesn’t maximize your winning percentage, but playing and winning as someone who wins through superior skill at the game won’t harm your development as a Magic player, and you’ll enjoy playing in tournaments more if you presume that your opponent has the same attitude and isn’t going to try and beat you through cheating or being a jerk.
As compensation for counseling against winning games through being a jerk, I promised to tell the secret of how to win in every tournament you enter. I’m afraid that this is a little bit of a con – I actually already told this secret in a part of an article I wrote for Mindripper.com a few years back. But I recently re-read it, and it does at least offer an alternative way of approaching these things. At the very least, it sums up the attitude which I take to playing tournaments these days, and it works well for me.
As a word of explanation, this was at the end of the Nationals where I was trying to make Top 8 for the third year in a row and where I had contrived to finish with three losses and a draw after going 7-1 with my Ponza deck. The full report is located here.
“One last thing. I mentioned at the beginning of my report that I had the secret to winning all the time while playing Magic. Those with the admirable (and frankly incredible) stamina to still be reading might well be puzzled by this, given that I lost four matches during the course of Nationals. I’ll explain what I mean.
There was a time when going from 7-1 and third place in Nationals to finish up 26th would have left me feeling really gutted and miserable about the whole tournament. This is especially the case because in more than a quarter of my games I drew far more land than spells, and I had no luck with the pairings, facing the only two decks in the whole tournament which were incredibly hard matchups for my deck. Indeed, while playing Neil and reflecting on the fact that I’d made a play error that had cost me the match, I did feel a bit disappointed. However, after the match was finished, I felt fine.
It’s impossible to win every game of Magic. Contrary to what some bad people (like, er, me) might write on the internet, there is no ultimate deck which beats all the others. What’s more, even if you have an amazing draft deck, or a matchup which you should win, then you can always get unlucky and not draw the cards that you need – either land after land after land or no lands at all. If your attitude at the beginning of a tournament is “I have to do well or I’ll be upset”, then a fair proportion of the time you will go away having “lost” and feeling miserable.
If you think about it, though, that is a stupid attitude. In any Magic tournament you’re getting the chance to play a brilliant game against some of the nicest people that you could hope to meet anywhere. If you lose, then there’ll always be someone playing a Red deck that you can cheer on as it beats all the stupid control decks. If your attitude going into a tournament is “I want to have fun”, then the only way that you can lose is if you meet someone objectionable, which happens pretty rarely.
That’s one of the reasons that I always play Red decks. Even though at Nationals I thought that Go-Mar was the best deck, I would not have had fun if I’d been sitting there for round after round discarding Nether Spirits and casting Counterspells. Even such a poor excuse for a Red deck as the Ponza deck I played, by contrast, was really fun, despite its stellar 2-3-1 record.
Personally, despite a disappointing personal result, I had a fantastic time at Nationals. I got to meet up with loads of people that, due to playing tournaments very infrequently, I hardly ever see, I got to cheer on all of my friends (and I hope that this report has in some way conveyed how much fun it is to be part of a group of people playing Magic) and I got to attack people with Tahngarth, Talruum Hero. What more could anyone want?”
‘Til next time, may you remember not to write “4 Fireblast” on your Standard decklist,