Playing For Perfection

One of the things great players do is create goals they’re accountable for. So how did Ari Lax do in his 2015 self-evaluation? Read about the holes in his game and how he plans to patch them up!

Last year, I set up a bunch of goals. Just like the year before, and the year before. Most of them were quantitative, and I met all of them fairly easily (assuming you fudge my tiebreakers at one Pro Tour where I 10-6’ed and missed cash). One was about playing on outside of Top 8 contention, which has gone well and will only be tested more in 2016 as Grand Prix move to having more margin to not Top 8 but still have relevant Pro Point finishes.

This would normally be the point of the year where I have time between events to do a methodical breakdown of my year, what I learned, the goals I had set before, and the ones I want to set moving forward.

But there is still one goal left I haven’t talked about.

“Figure out where else I can improve my game.”

At the end of the last Pro Season, about 2/3rds of the way through the calendar year, I reexamined this. I came up with a bunch of specific issues to solve. Things like evaluating large boardstates, knowing Draft specifics better, and so on. Clearly my results were matching my heightened expectations, so I was making progress in general, right? Crossing those items off one by one should be fairly straightforward.

Worlds came and went. I did horribly, but it was largely due to a number of poor logistical things. I let those slip, and I was borderline non-functional during the event. I resolved them and moved forward, and it’s been better since. Yet again, proof I could make progress.

Then came Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar. I made Day Two at 4-4, but that only meant I could lose more matches to my own mistakes. “Let me block with the worse creature here, oh wait that was the green one and now I lose to Surge of Righteousness.” “Tap some lands for Abbot of Keral Keep, oh wait I now only have green fetches open and no more Cinder Glades to fetch to cast this card with.” I’m sure there were more, and I even know they were worse because I actively forgot them rather than remember how badly I played.

It was bad. I had one of the best decks in the room for the event and the same sideboard and play plans that lead multiple other players to top Constructed records, so it was clearly me that sucked. So, when in doubt, I went to the player on my team who clearly had this the most together: Brad Nelson.

(Okay, maybe second most together considering I was working with the actual World Champion, but I’ve seen people go down the rabbit hole of trying to learn from Seth too many times. It usually ends in gibbering madness and phrases like “You can’t play all four Vastwood Gorgers and nine four-drops in a format with Topan Freeblade!”)

“You are great at picking up on new interactions and deck positions, but you don’t play for perfection.”

Abject failure. Brad was right. I wanted to figure out what I was doing wrong in games, and I was wrong from the very core.

Instead of the usual list, I have a list of holes I am actively fixing in my games. Places I know I’ve failed and know how to get better.

Hole 1: Bad Reads

Step one of this also came at Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar, courtesy of my teammate Corey Burkhart and, in turn, courtesy of our mutual friend Dan Clark.

For some background, Dan Clark was one of the key figures at RIW Hobbies when I was first rising through the JSS/PTQ scene. More so than Magic, Dan was known for his expertise at other games. Notably he was great at games on the excessively intricate side of the scale, like VS System and the old Star Wars card game that was basically Clashing until you knew the order of your deck and playing out of that point.

So, when Corey was discussing what he was doing with the R/G Landfall deck that made it so great, his response was “I’m playing Dan Clark Magic. I’m not making my cards good, but I’m making their cards bad.”

This is something I’ve been historically bad at. I’ve probably said this dozens of times, but I have a few key positions I put myself in regularly when I end up winning.

1) I have perfect information. Thoughtseize away! 2) My opponents have a limited number of relevant cards, either immediately because my strategy does that to them or very quickly because my cards trump theirs. 3) My opponents are playing with very constricted, scripted gameplans. The best example of this was early in Thragtusk Standard, where turns 4-6 basically had every deck on exactly one good line with anything else being way worse than Huntmaster of the Fells into Thragtusk into other Thragtusk-esque threat.

Sometimes, there was a confluence of a bunch of these and winning was real easy. Thoughtseize, Elspeth, Sun’s Champion as a trump, and people playing “aggro” decks with bad two-drops and lots of three-drops and Temples. Aggressive red cards against four- to five-drop midrange. In the end, these are all cases where there are clear points my cards are at their best and I get to play “downhill” towards a situation where my card or cards are maximized.

Unshockingly, these scenarios do not describe every format. Sometimes the right things to do are play midrange mirrors that don’t end in attrition to trumps. Or weird tempo mirrors where patience and positioning is huge with little known information, like the Modern Twin mirror.

And those were the formats where I lost a ton. And also the formats where your goal was to deduce what your opponent had and try to line up accordingly as opposed to playing to a set point of the game.

I’m embarrassed to say it, as it should almost be obvious for a player of my level, but I was just not using the information given away in gameplay remotely as much as I should have been. At some point in testing for #GPPitt playing against Twin, I realized that I just always knew if they had the early combo based on their first couple of turns. The combo is just card intensive enough that the odds of having everything else line up perfectly alongside it is very low, so based on key points where they stumble you can deduce that their hand had to be good enough to keep for some reason. Sulfur Falls on turn 1 and turn 2, no Remand or Lightning Bolt, Serum Visions to top and bottom with no play on turn 2, and so on.

Then I felt real dumb. I was so good at figuring this out here, why wasn’t I just thinking about this?Once I started doing this, it was so simple. I’m good at sequencing. I’m good at estimating odds on things in terms of when to wait and when to move. It’s all there on the table.

Here’s what I’ve started doing: every turn of the earlygame, just ask the question “What would I have kept?” What more would your opponent’s hand need for them to sequence the way they did?

People don’t keep bad hands for no reason. If they do, you probably beat them regardless of what you do or think. They don’t make earlygame plays for no reason. Mana and time are tight there, and a lot of what you do is dictated very strictly by what your hand starts as.

I’ve always been a big proponent about the whole mind games aspect of Magic being overrated, and I still agree. Especially with all of the major formats being extremely high powered and streamlined now, it’s a very narrow set of circumstances where you find an effective bluff that doesn’t cost you a lot relative to making the obvious right play. As a result of how tempo-based Magic is, the full-on Dan Clark “make their cards bad” answer is just playing your things in the obvious order. The cost of next leveling people is often higher than the reward.

But with all the different answer-threat dances going on, evaluating things at level 1 pays off very highly. It honestly doesn’t change your plays early on that often, but when you get to the midgame, suddenly you have a very good idea of lines you don’t have to worry about.

Hole 2: Idea Stagnation

This one has been building for almost three years now. The reason it was hard to catch is that it was additive.

My practice has always been to brute force my way to results. I pick something, play it until I figure out why it is terrible, then figure out what needs to happen to have a non-terrible idea. True implementation of “sucking at something is the first step to getting kind of good at something.”

One by one, things built up that reduced the number of games I was able to see per hour (replays mid-Magic Online events disabled). Then the number of decklists I could see in a day dropped (less released from Magic Online Dailies). Then the number of hours I had to work on Magic dropped (day job). Then the number of formats I had to track increased with the number of Grand Prix. Then the number of games I could see dropped again (Version 4). And so on.

I’m back on the upswing lately here due to a few things. One is the implementation of Magic Online Leagues letting me get more match throughput. One is just giving up on testing for certain events to the extent I would test for others. One is really implementing the more time condensed methods of information gathering I talked about in my last article. The combination of these two is just going back to asking people about the decks they are playing. Even if I disagree with their opinion at points, I learn a ton.

I also wasn’t going deep enough, both on ideas in general or on a single deck. I would play the top ten decks and pick one I thought was good, but that meant I had an outdated list without enough reps to play it well and that I was always playing a deck the room was ready for.

A lot of the work I was doing this year was me spinning my wheels to get to mediocre levels of preparedness. That is changing back to how I did things before when I got it right.

Hole 2a: Just Not Knowing for No Good Reason

One thing I keep tripping up on is playing into obvious cards. Or making obvious mistakes with utilizing my cards and not thinking about the fact that my end play just makes everything terrible forever. This is simply a result of me not looking at enough lists to see stock decisions and not having done things before. Researching all the obvious tricks, interaction, and trumps in all of the top decks is now going to be a prerequisite for every Constructed event I show up to, and as per above I’m going to start locking in earlier and getting more games in with the decks I’m playing against the most intricate matchups to ensure I know most of the sequences that matter.

Hole 3: Backslide

That last one kind of chains into this one.

I’ve really let myself get caught up in the event-to-event scramble and lost ground where I had previously made gains. Lots of simple ideas I figured out earlier are being lost in the push forward. As mentioned way earlier, a lot of what went wrong at Worlds were things I already knew. All that stupid stuff that everyone always rolls their eyes at in articles? Yeah, that stuff. It was a real big failure on a basic level for me. That wasn’t the only time I did this. I kept repeating the same actions that lead to other mediocre results. Not enough practice, pushing myself too hard, choosing decks without looking at the big picture, haphazardly choosing my cards. Again, real basic stuff.

Of course, I already know the answer to this issue this from practice. Documentation. Procedures. There’s a time for doing things as quickly as possible to produce a result, but if you develop a way to do things better, you should record it and keep doing it that way… cause things get better. Infrastructure matters.

This is a big part of why this list feels so short and empty. There are things I know I’ve noticed along the way that have just gotten pushed aside for more immediately pressing concerns, never to be picked up again.

The list I had that was previously 100% mental has been transferred to digital storage. It’s still fairly empty and will fill with things I know I already do as I think about them, but the plan is to keep referencing it each event. If I’m off track and not doing what I have set forth, I’m going to have to explain to myself why. There’s a reason Sam Stoddard made a Fearless Magical Inventory in a structured format. Each item is a box to check off with set accountability to it.

Really, this brings me back to where I would usually end this.


1. Get back to what I know works.

Step-by-step. Methodical. Playtesting. Find people I can count on to fill in the gaps I know I have. Make sure they do the same thing.

That is all. In removing that pillar I’ve definitely forced myself to expose other flaws in my game, but in the end I’m still not doing it right. Even once I go back to how I did things before, I can be procedural about technical flaws as well. It’s just a matter of incorporating layers to an additive process.

This is how I did well the last time I was winning. And the time before that. And at some point, probably again in the future.