Reflecting Ruel – Grand Prix: Kitakyushu

Visit the StarCityGames.com booth at Grand Prix Minneapolis
Friday, November 6th – Olivier Ruel reflects on a lackluster performance at Grand Prix: Kitakyushu, which has led him to some serious questions about his place in the game. Today, he theorizes on the things you can do to get out of a Magical slump, and shares a few positive thoughts along the way!

The Magic Year is coming to an end, and it’s now pretty clear I won’t be Level 8 in 2010. It’s becoming unlikely I’ll even be Level 7; if I don’t finish well in the very-likely-to-be-2000-player Grand Prix: Paris, which could be three brackets and 10 rounds of sealed deck play. How did I get here? Let’s start with the latest chapter… Grand Prix: Kitakyushu.

I’ve now been away from home for a month, and I’d been on the road for nearly a week (I arrived in Tampa Airport on Monday at 11:30am, and in Kitakyushu on Friday 8:00pm) when I reached the tournament site.

The first thing I noticed on arrival was a small monument called “Tampa”. Was it the jet-lag? Had I made so many round trips in the last few days that I actually returned to my starting point?

No, Kitakyushu just happened to be the previous GP’s “host” sister city. The world sometimes looks pretty small when you play Magic!

I have been doing pretty badly in my events lately, scoring only three pro points in the last five GPs. However, when it comes to Japan, I always feel good. Usually, when I travel for quite a while and go from country to country, from hotel room to hotel room, and from plane to plane, I get homesick pretty quickly. However, Japan is the only exception. The Land of the Rising Sun is like a second home to me. I love everything there; the people, the mentality, the food, everything. Just breathing the Japanese air makes me feel better.

That’s why, when I woke up on Saturday morning, I didn’t feel any pressure, lack of confidence, or even any trace of jet-lag. I actually felt in incredible shape, pumped by adrenaline at the very second I woke up. I was ready to take anyone down in the room and just win this event. It made me realize I used to feel this way at every tournament. When did it stop, exactly? Have I lost so much self confidence over the last few months that I have forgotten about this feeling?

Usually I play pretty quickly, but I realized last week that jet-lag and fast plays are not always very good when combined. Generally, as I haven’t won much lately, it couldn’t hurt to try and play a bit differently, and to trade some intuition for some thinking.

My card pool was the worse I’ve had in a while. None of my colors had what it takes to be the core of a deck, both as far as mana curve and card power was concerned. I had countless two-color options, but they all seemed about as bad, as none of them had a decent curve or more than the bare minimum synergy. The best two options appeared to be a RB Control with one one-drop, no two-drops, and some Gray Ogres as my first guys in the curve; or a UB build using all the most powerful cards in my sealed cardpool (Malakir Bloodwitch, Living Tsunami). However, the first deck would die to missing a land drop in the first four turns, while the second deck had nearly no removal (Paralyzing Grasp and Heartstabber Mosquito), and it only had 16 good cards with 6 fillers. I don’t mind playing one or two fillers in Limited, but you can’t really call a deck stable, even when it’s two colors, when there is so much difference between your good draws and your bad ones.

And that was my biggest problem: my two color decks were not even stable. What did I have left? A lot of allies but not many fixers. Not so sexy, but by far the most synergic deck I could run. After a few tries, here is the deck I decided to play:

1 Kazandu Refuge
7 Forest
5 Mountain
5 Swamp
2 Nissa’s Chosen
1 Oran-Rief Survivalist
1 Goblin Shortcutter
1 Stonework Puma
1 Tajuru Archer
1 Grazing Gladehart
1 Torch Slinger
1 Dross Scorpion
1 Bala Ged Thief
2 Joraga Bard
1 Timbermaw Larva
1 Heartstabber Mosquito
1 Malakir Bloodwitch
2 Tuktuk Grunts
1 Murasa Pyromancer
1 Burst Lightning
2 Vines of Vastwood
1 Harrow

The mana in the deck was decent, but it was very likely to cause me some problems. I decided to limit them by making Green the clear core of the deck, and leaving cards like Shatterskull Giant, Geyser Glider, and Gatekeeper of Malakir in the board.

I was pretty glad I managed to give my deck some synergy, as well as allowing it to run most of the powerful cards. I practiced during the byes and won about 50% of my games against pros whose decks didn’t really shine either. With only 8 rounds Day 1 and a three-round bye, that was still enough to make me confident in my chance of making it to Day 2.

When my round 4 opponent arrived at the table, he counted 39 cards in his deck. I helped him search for it, asking him if maybe one of his previous opponents has played Journey to Nowhere or Roil Elemental

When, after a few minutes of searching, he decided to call over a judge to help him solve the mystery with his decklist, I advised him to just double check first the missing card is not a basic land, to avoid a sanction. He didn’t, and ended up down a game but the happy owner of a brand new Mountain.

This was one of the four games I won that day. And it was the only one I can’t guarantee I would have won if I was in my opponent’s seat.

I still did my best. I played very carefully, and didn’t make any mistakes that I noticed (my draws didn’t leave me much time for options anyway). I also playtested other decks in between rounds, etc. But Saturday was just one of those days.

After posting a 1-3 record, I left the tournament extremely disappointed. I now knew I was extremely unlikely to make it to Level 8, and that even finishing Level 7 would be very difficult. This led me to ask myself many questions, about my play, my dedication, and about my attitude to the game in general. Am I willing to keep up with this lifestyle of mine, when being “only” a Level 7 mage would actually cost me money? Isn’t it actually time to consider moving on to something else?

I only found one answer to that: I’ll do my best until the end of the season and figure it out then. There’s no point in thinking it over as long as I don’t have all the data to make my decision.

So, what do I know? I know I want to win, to feel that rush of adrenaline in every cell of my body again, to be one of the best once more. And I’ll do what it takes to get there. And concerning the disappointment of this season, and in particular of this tournament? I’ll just have to live with it. In the 15 years I’ve spent playing Magic, including over a decade playing on the Pro Tour, I came to know that there are cycles of luck and bad luck. This applies to anything, and of course to Magic. It’s important, when you’re at the bottom, to remember that you do run hot sometimes.

When you almost always beat players “worse” than you, you tend to think it’s normal. It’s not. Magic is still a card game, with the randomness that this involves, and even Kai Budde or Jon Finkel in their best seasons didn’t win more than 65% of their matches.

Only in the very long term will you win the quantity of games you’re “supposed” to win. Take Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, for instance. In his first year and a half on the PT, Guillaume’s worst result in a PT was… 24th! No matter how good you are, it involves luck. And over the next 18 months, Guillaume’s best result on the PT must have been about 200th. Even if any beginner was playing as many major events as Wafo has over this period, he would have done better. How did the player with the best winning rate on the PT almost become the one with the worst? Surely he must be playing a little worse, but Wafo simply embodies what a cycle of luck and bad luck actually is. He had, over the last three years, pretty much the results he deserved to obtain. He just had all the good results before all the bad results.

Any regular poker player will have experienced this as well. You can be better than your opponent and be all in with your aces against their sevens, and you’ll still lose one time out of five. Sometimes you will win 8 straight all ins, and consider it normal, as you’re the favorite every time hands are revealed, but it is not. Deserved? Yes. Normal? No. Luck is a full part of the game, and it’s as abnormal to be winning repeatedly as it is to be losing all the time. In the same way, sometimes you won’t be able to win. At all.

There is one thing better with running cold at Magic than running slow at poker. Actually, it’s two, since losing at poker usually costs more money. When you’re losing regularly, you start questioning yourself and your plays. In poker, this is very dangerous, as it may end up making you play badly when trying something different (a different style, format, or limit). In Magic, however, questioning yourself is always helpful.

I actually think there is the only possible answer to bad runs: try your best so you can do something the next time success knocks at your door. That’s what I’m trying to achieve at the moment. Here has been my program to achieve success over the last few weeks:

Focusing More When Playing

This applies in particular to Zendikar Limited. The current draft format may be the fastest (and one of the least complex) Limited formats ever devised. These are actually the reasons that you should focus even more on your game than usual. It’s always when a game looks easy, to play or to win, that it actually is the hardest to play your best. The relative simplicity and the speed of the format makes mistakes less common, but it therefore increases the impact of every single mistake a great deal. Also, as the games are so fast, you can afford to take longer to think. I mean, who ever took a draw in ZZZ Limited?

Rethinking My Deck Choices

The last Pro Tour was a pretty good example. My GB Dark Depths deck was, I’m pretty sure, quite good. I should have posted a 4-1 result with it, but was it really better than the UB version? I had the feeling that it was, but the results tend to prove me wrong. Yes, I was unlucky in my games, but when I see how close my games were, I must consider a better version could have won at least one or two more games.

More Testing

I played a lot over the course of the year, but I didn’t put these extra 15 or 20 hours a week in the weeks prior a major event. However, I’ve been playing 6 hours a day minimum when I was not on a plane.

Asking For Help

Other people’s opinion is a commodity we never value enough in Magic. Even the worst player can have a good idea for a deck concept or for a sideboard card. Usually, it’s pretty interesting to have a player whose level you respect to watch over your plays and draft, to look at his plays too, and to discuss it afterwards. The draft article series I’ve been doing on this very website with Manuel Bucher made me open my mind on so many things that, afterwards, I had the feeling I had been doing a lot more drafts than I actually had. The two single weeks of hanging around together during Alara block drafts had probably more impact than two months drafting on my own.

There is also another option, which is just not the one for me yet: taking a break. Playing when you don’t want to play cannot create efficient results. Stop playing for a day, a week, or even a month, if that’s what it takes to free your mind. Maybe you’ll lose some automatic plays, or maybe only hours of testing when compared to other players, but your fresher mind will undoubtedly compensate.

Remember that loving and enjoying the game is at the core of doing well.

I realized this last weekend, despite my poor results… the magic in the Japanese air, I guess. I’ll do my best in Paris, Minneapolis, and Rome, in order to keep this feeling alive.

Have a great weekend!