Never Make The Same Mistake Twice

Brian talks about one of history’s greatest minds and what he can teach us about improving our game. What percentage of Magic games are won by your opponent as opposed to being lost by you?

Untitled Document

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
–Albert Einstein

Einstein was unfortunate to have been born in 1879, and therefore, never even had the opportunity to play tournament Magic.  I say unfortunate because I’m fairly certain he would have been able to be an elite level tournament player.  I would even speculate that he would have been good enough a spell caster to win on the Pro Tour.

While many of Einstein’s tremendously insightful quotes obviously were not intended to apply specifically to Magic, like all insightful quotes, they tend to be true about any number of subjects. 

Today I am going to talk about the insanity that is making the same mistake over and over again.  On the surface, it seems like a fairly rudimentary statement:

Don’t repeat your mistakes!”
“Okay Einstein, thanks for the totally obvious advice…”

Unfortunately, while the principle is solid, the logic is undeniable, and the concept is undeniable individuals (myself included) time and time again fall into the exact same pitfalls and do not heed this advice as steadfastly as we ought to.

People are programmed in such a way as to recognize patterns and to use these patterns to make decisions based upon how they interpret these patterns.  It happens in everyday life and it happens in gaming. 

  • I see a police car on the side of the road, and I instinctively slow down.
  • I see my opponent play a Tropical Island, and I play around Daze.
  • I see a hot stove, and I know not to touch it.
  • My opponent plays a basic Mountain, and I know not to play a shockland untapped except in an absolute emergency.


It isn’t that we as human Magic players are born knowing that a stove is intrinsically hot or that Daze is in most Delver decks, but rather it is something that we learn by experiencing situations and then learning from those experiences.  Can you even imagine, a newborn baby watching SCGLive and his or her first words are: “Why would you crack that fetchland there? The other guy is clearly representing a Stifle.”

I mean, how would the baby know that unless he or she had played a bunch of Legacy matches, knew the decks and match ups, and had experience playing against the deck?

Playing tournament Magic (at least getting started) is a lot like being a baby with a blank slate and learning about what all of the different patterns are and how to properly interpret them.  It’s not a putdown, but rather a metaphor that seeks to emphasize how much there is to learn and understand within the framework of a game that is tremendously complex and becomes even more so with each new set.

The first thing that I’d like to highlight in this discussion is that just because a person has read about it, or just because somebody has told a person about it, doesn’t create the same kind of “knowing” as experiencing it first hand.

A Magic writer can write “Don’t over commit to a board against a Supreme Verdict deck if you don’t have to…”  and a person can read that statement a million times.  However, if a player keeps doing it and keeps winning they will be very likely (even having read the aforementioned statement) to continue to do it until those actions are met with a real consequence. 

“They never have it.”

A statement that may have been true in that player’s experience up until that point in time.  Then eventually, it does happen.  John-Joe Runlucky plays out a bunch of extra creatures that he doesn’t need to and his opponent top decks a Wrath of God and wins the game outright for no good reason.

“If I hadn’t of played out everything for no reason, I’d be able to redeploy my board and would still be in this game…”

It feels absolutely awful.  He or she had everything they actually needed to win but got greedy and gave it all away.  He or she couldn’t lose but presented the opponent with a feasible, tangible way to come back.

A light bulb comes on and stays.

Then in another game some time later a situation presents itself in a similar circumstance.  John-Joe Runlucky is playing in a game where he’s winning against a Wrath of God deck and can play more creatures to win next turn but will then become vulnerable to a Wrath of God.  Should he wait it out to see if the opponent has the Wrath or not?

The situation is different because the last time he overcommitted into a Wrath of God he already had the win on board, this time there is actually an upside to committing so many resources.  If the opponent doesn’t have it, he wins. 

As you can see, it is all different shades of the same mistake. Literally, Einstein’s definition of insanity.

The problem is that a player who has been historically, categorically rewarded for making risky plays will gravitate toward making more risky plays.  The lesson all along was that it is bad form to make plays that give one’s opponent an opportunity to find a way back into the game where other options exist that may require an opponent to have four, five, or six running good cards instead of just needing to produce one specific card.

I chose this example because it is sort of the level zero example of making a mistake that everybody can relate to, but it is applicable to basically every situation that a player could interpret poorly and force a suboptimal line of play.

“I keep losing to burn.  My matchup is horrible.”

So, what are you going to do about it?

In Magic there is always some aspect stating that matchups will be decidedly favorable or unfavorable.  For instance, if I’m playing a deck without Force of Wills in Legacy and I get paired up against a Charbelcher deck, there may not be very much that I’m able to do to influence the outcome of the game.

However, there are a lot of matchups in Magic that are not so cut and dry.  Here’s an example that I experienced a lot over the winter:

“Yeah, I basically just auto-lose to Sphinx’s Revelation decks…”

Said approximately 25 different Mono Black players that I played against after a match.

Isn’t it telling that so many people can have reached the exact same conclusion that simply isn’t true?  A classic case of repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

Having played a ton against Mono-Black Devotion with Esper, I was of the opinion that the matchup was actually very close and that certain cards at certain times were huge at swaying games one way or the other.

I am of the conclusion that the players who were constantly telling me that they “auto-lose to Sphinx’s Revelation” were the players who didn’t understand the matchup at all and that were basically just repeating the same mistakes over and over again and getting the same results, i.e. failure.

The way to break the cycle in a case like this is to actually sit down and practice playing against the deck that you are struggling to beat in a tournament.  Simply put, sit down with a friend and play twenty or thirty games against it with sideboards and figure out what is important, what works, and what doesn’t work.

One thing I very vividly remember about playtesting all the time with Patrick Chapin back when he lived in Michigan was that the really “good decks” in various formats were the one’s that he would sit down and test endlessly against.  He would take his 4-color control deck of the month and play a hundred games against Affinity, or Elves, or Burn, or Faeries until he understood exactly what was important, how the games played out, and what was necessary to win with consistency.  Then, when he would get paired up against those matchups in tournaments he would know exactly what was going on and have the necessary information, processes, and tools to defeat those decks in tournament play.

Magic is very much a game about matchups and understanding what is important against any given deck.  A very high percentage of players who think they are better than they actually are constantly throw out the complaint to me that “Magic is too high variance” and “Magic is too luck based,” to which I habitually respond by saying “Then why are the same 25 players always in the Top 8’s of tournaments with 500+ players?”

If Magic was truly a game of coin flips and luck was the most important thing, then why do the elite level players seem to dominate in fields so large that it ought to be statistically impossible?

Magic may not be a game without variance where the best player will always win (like Chess), but it is certainly a game where skill and proficiency make a gigantic difference in determining wins and losses. 

The players who consistently do well are armed with the ability to understand matchups: how they work, what is important, and what to do.  Player’s who produce consistently strong finishes and cross the threshold from mediocrity to consistency learn from their mistakes and do not repeat them over and over again.

My challenge to any player looking to make an immediate improvement to their tournament play would be to do the following:  Over the next month keep track of every single tournament game of Magic that you lose and write down what you could have done different, what caused you to lose, and any mistakes you think you might have made.

First of all, the very act of writing something down and committing it to paper forces an individual to internalize it which makes it sink in more than just forgetting about it.  Second of all, if you track losses, mistakes, and/or things that could have been done differently, it creates the opportunity to recognize new patterns that we as players are able to learn from.

If a player were to track fifteen losses over the course of a month and seven of them were lost due to flooding out with land heavy starting hands…  Well, maybe that is a pattern that tells that player they need to be more vigilant about mulliganing five-landers on the draw.

Remember, that the more aware a person is that they are making mistakes the much higher the probability that they won’t repeat those mistakes again.

Understand what mistakes you’ve made and then use that knowledge to identify and overcome in the future.