Innovations – Moving from Good to Great with Zvi Mowshowitz

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Friday, April 11th – Of late, there has been an influx of psychology-themed articles, each offering tangible reasons to explain why we lose. Today’s Innovations sees Patrick Chapin and Zvi Mowshowitz, two of the game’s undeniable greats, chewing the fat on the topic in an illuminating interview… [Editor’s Note – Mike Flores will be running on Monday!]

Today, I had to write my article before I actually got to play any Magic this week, so I turned to my good friend, Zvi Mowshowitz, for inspiration.

Zvi is a Hall of Famer who would have easily made it in on the strength of his numerous Pro Tour Top 8’s, not to mention his reign as “Best Deckbuilder on the Planet” on multiple occasions. However, on top of this, Zvi is probably the only writer to challenge Michael J Flores when it comes to his contributions in terms of articles, theory, and advancing the game on an intellectual level.

For some of his work, look here, here, and here.


Earlier, I had the good fortune to speak with Zvi for a few minutes regarding how a PTQ player can move past a plateau of consistent “solid” finishes to actually winning. It is better to go 0-2 twice and win once than to finish Top 8 three times… As someone who knows a thing or two about Magic tournament success, as well as game theory on the whole, I knew he would be a good man to interview.

PChapin: Hey Zvi. How are you?

Zvi: Good.

PChapin: I am writing my article for next week and am looking for inspiration. Any chance I could talk to you a little? Maybe concerning the most important things a player can do to break out of merely being good…? You know, someone who consistently makes 6-2 records at PTQs… What can they do if they have reached a plateau?

Zvi: The obvious one is to constantly be looking to get better, and approaching every game with that attitude. To get to where you leave every match thinking you played awful. The details of what to improve are different for different people. I’ve seen it be pure motivation, or focus. I’ve seen it be tactical. I’ve seen it be deckbuilding / planning, etc, etc.

I also don’t think there’s a way to ‘consistently’ post 6-2 records unless you go 2-2 and beat up on scrubs all the time. Magic is far too varied a game for that.

PChapin: I have a few friends who consistently go 5-2, 6-2, 7-2 etc. They either miss Top 8 by one, or they make Top 8 with one loss and then lose in Top 8. That is what I mean.

Zvi: The question then is: is this caused by something?

PChapin: That is what I suspect. After all, that is a pretty specific outcome. I mean, if they can control the outcome that heavily, why can’t they arrange for it to be 8-1 instead of 7-2.

Zvi: Well, if there’s a reason, I’d ask what is going on first. They are good at beating scrubs.

PChapin: Probably.

Zvi: Second, they’re not good at winning later against good players. So, there are two places I’d look first. Option A: They have a good game against weak players but not against strong players. There are a number of behaviors that can cause this, such as:

1. Assuming opponents are not smart.
2. Inability to read into what the opponent is doing deeply (since you have to be good to be readable).
3. Sacrificing too much for consistency in draws, such as not mulliganing enough weak hands.
4. Steering games towards stalls and complicated boards.
5. Playing decks that are strong versus beatdown. Players need to watch out for scrubcrushing deck choices.
6. In Limited, of course, maybe they’re not good drafters.

The other possibility, Option B, is that they are folding to pressure. That they lose when it counts because it counts.

PChapin: Let’s start with what they can do to fix Option A. Actually Option B seems like a more focused topic. Let’s start there. What can be done about a choke artist?

Zvi: The first time you get that far, you’re expected to be nervous, and to suffer somewhat because of it, but if it persists, that’s different.

PChapin: For example, how does someone make 8 Top 8’s in a season and not qualify? (True story.)

Zvi: Well, statistically speaking it’s not really that hard.

PChapin: Agreed, but you know what I mean. (This is obviously excluding rating…)

Zvi: You’re one in three to miss, if you’re 50/50 every match, but I see the point of course. If you can make eight Top 8s, you should be better than that. I find the best way to not choke is to not be in a mental frame where you have to worry about it. This match isn’t different from any other.

PChapin: It is a little hard for me to relate. When I am playing for (what I perceive to be) high stakes, I perform better. For instance, I just about always win the last round of swiss, if I play it, regardless of where I am.

Zvi: I’m at my best when I’m facing elimination.

PChapin: Then you know what I mean!

Zvi: Yeah, definitely. You have no choice but to win, so you do everything you can.

PChapin: Although, interestingly I have an abnormal amount of 11th place finishes, So I wonder if I have or had a habit of losing early (when it doesn’t “matter,” then fighting with my back against the wall. I do really well, but eventually drop one on a bad turn of events and am out of contention. Nonetheless, I play out the rest of the tournament and win out, finishing 11th.

Zvi: To me, the most dangerous match is one that you “can lose.” That’s one reason everyone at Worlds accused me of being so down between rounds. I was intentionally keeping the frame that I couldn’t give up a match. But what makes someone choke?

PChapin: Hrmm, why would someone want to be mediocre?

Zvi: That’s one answer, that they’re afraid of winning. If they qualified they’d have to go to a Pro Tour, prepare for it, play against all those Pros, go to a strange city, etc. Their self-image would change.

PChapin: Hmm…

Zvi: It’s possible that some people don’t really want to qualify.

PChapin: Surely, but let’s say for the sake of argument that the reader “wants” to qualify. How can they convince themselves that this is so?

Zvi: This is shrink territory. We’re trying to analyze an unknown person.

PChapin: Well, how about advice for someone we don’t know regarding some sort of blanket help with their perspective that may prove useful…?

Zvi: I’d ask yourself this: what is it that you’re scared of?

PChapin: Let’s say our hypothetical person does that and is able to answer honestly. What do they do with this information?

Zvi: The next question is:, why?

PChapin: Once they know that…

Zvi: Now you know what the problem is…

PChapin: Ahh, so either they do something to change that, or they decide that winning at Magic isn’t what they really want to do?

Zvi: Right! Maybe it’s legitimate for whatever reason, and they should just keep it casual. No shame in it.

PChapin: Maybe they come to realize that if they won they might not really enjoy Magic in the same way. Maybe they decide that the fear of that is too great to risk it (personally I think fear like that is not useful, although it is understandable).

Zvi: That’s definitely a legitimate concern. Doing something like a pro, for money, can dull your enjoyment. Maybe that’s more important to you. But they shouldn’t then be constantly working to ace PTQs. More likely, it’s something they need to realize is holding them back that shouldn’t be, like they’re afraid of going 0-5 at the PT.

PChapin: Most likely. Some know it as “Tom LaPille syndrome.” (<3 Tom)

What about Option A? What about that list of traits?

Zvi: The central theme in the list of traits: what do you think of your opponents?

PChapin: Go on.

Zvi: How do you use that? If you assume your opponent is an idiot, then you play to beat an idiot. You keep five lands because “as long as I have land I should win.” You play a deck with reliable mana, even though it’s not as powerful. You assume they’re not going to play the ‘good’ deck. You don’t give them credit for making smart decisions.

Sometimes you’re right. In the swiss of a PTQ, often you are. Treating an idiot like an idiot improves your chances, but treating a good player like an idiot is a good way to get killed.

PChapin: Hence losing to good players in the later rounds.

Zvi: Right… they have all this creature removal and extra mana and keep a borderline hand, and then don’t ask themselves what their opponent must have drawn or will sideboard. They don’t go to the advanced level thinking, so they are defeated.

The outlier is drafting, which is a “Top 8 only” skill. It’s easy to see a player who simply doesn’t have that skill, and needs to develop it

PChapin: True. Is there such thing as a 6-2 deck? A deck that always does well but never wins? Some people have claimed this about RDW, for example.

Zvi: At Nationals and Worlds, it’s a big fat lie, no question. The field is scrambled. To get a 6-2 effect, pairings have to matter a great deal. I’d also say that ‘never’ wins is obviously silly, but there are decks that are better or worse against strong/weak decks. Certainly there are plenty of people who went to a PT and were fine on day 1 but were never in it to make Top 8.

PChapin: What about those that say that what makes Flash so frustrating in Vintage is that it arguable has positive EV against everyone, yet folds to itself so often that it is hard to win a tournament with the deck?

Zvi: It’s kind of a game theory situation. If everyone else played Flash, you would have to play it yourself.

PChapin: That is almost what it is like in Vintage, in my humble opinion. Flash has positive EV against everything except maybe Dredge, yet hasn’t had full success. This may be partially because the best Vintage players choose to play other decks with more nostalgic value or that are “more fun.”

Zvi: No one likes to lose control of their own deck.

PChapin: It is also partially due to it not paying off skill as highly as other decks. Two highly skilled players in a fight? You obviously have to put the money on Flash. However, if you think everyone else in the room is generally weak, you may want a deck that gives you more room to “wiggle,” more room to outplay weak players.

Zvi: The answer, of course, is that only players who think they can’t do better would go with Flash (which may be everyone depending on how many other people also play Flash).

PChapin: Any advice for players getting ready for Regionals?

Zvi: What is the format?

PChapin: Regionals is Standard, with Shadowmoor, I believe.

Zvi: Oh great! I was worried there for a second that I might have to work.

PChapin: Haha! What can a player whose goal it is to make Top 4 or Top 8 Regionals do to maximize his time spent testing? (Max value, that is.)

Zvi: I would say that you should worry about those last few rounds and preparing for those, and let the early rounds take care of themselves. More than that, I would say don’t take too broad a focus. Try to get a few choices early and work on those.

PChapin: What is your favorite cut of beef from a fine restaurant?

Zvi: Sirloin, generally.

PChapin: Boxers or briefs? (Or, like me, boxer briefs…)

Zvi: … … … … Okay, I think we’re done here.

PChapin: Thank you for your time!

Zvi: You’re welcome!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”