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SCG Classic – Tomfidence

This article written by Jon Becker, originally published in 2003, is one that deserves a rereading every year. SCG Classics brings you one of the best articles on improving your Magic game.

Originally published 11-12-2003.

I was talking to a friend of mine from Philly and asked if he planned to attend the Philly area qualifier running on Saturday. He said that he was not going to the PTQ, instead opting to travel to see his girlfriend (not an uncommon occurrence or unreasonable choice, I suppose). I asked him if he was planning on going to any of the “local” PTQs (NY, MD, Philly, or NJ), and he said that he would probably go to the Neutral Ground qualifier—a notoriously tough place to qualify, given the concentration of solid players and fringe pros regularly in attendance and the solid pro (or former pro) level players who seem to come out of the woodwork to play for a kick.

Will Pikula be there? Maybe. Tony Tsai—assuredly. Matt Urban will show, but will he play or will he trade? How about the Providence-Boston Crew? All the non-qualified TOGIT players (though that number is rapidly diminishing) almost always hit New York. In any event, if one had to pick a qualifier to go to and one had a choice of say, Maryland or Neutral Ground, most people (setting aside the non-PTQ allure of Katz’s Deli, great money drafting, and the general high-quality times to be had at Neutral Ground) would rather try to Q in Maryland than NYC.

I related this thought to him, and he said something that surprised me—maybe more than it should have, but I think it ended up explaining a lot. He said “Well, I’m not gonna qualify, so I am really just going to play some cards.”

Now, casual players, hold your horses. Let me tell you a little about this guy. He has been playing Magic for something like eight or nine years—since Revised I think—and always goes to at least a couple of qualifiers a season. He has never qualified for the Pro Tour but has played in Nationals once, and I think he has maybe three or four Top 8 PTQ performances under his belt. He isn’t a world breaker, obviously, but if he concentrates and is on his game, he is certainly better than your average player in terms of play skill. Like most of the people at a given PTQ, he does want to qualify and has never professed otherwise—so don’t think the above comment was about just going to play some cards.

What he meant was that he did not expect that he would Top 8 or qualify.

I can understand this point of view from a fairly new player, who knows that they are maybe one of the better players in their local group or knows that they have some timing/rule or card valuation issues to learn before they can reasonably expect to compete at a PTQ. That player is going for experience and to learn.

I can also accept this from a casual player who just wants to hang out with his friends and play some cards, and the location that week happens to be a PTQ, but since he is not really all that serious about playing, the Pro Tour is not really a goal, and he expects to take at least a few losses to more competitive, more intense players.

But I cannot understand why this comment would come from this player.

The Answer? Or Maybe Not.

Let me let you in on a little something here. When the player that you see winning the Qualifier walked into the tournament that morning, nineteen times out of twenty, that person either expected to win the tournament or at least expected to Top 8. When I walk into a qualifier, I expect to Top 8, and if I don’t, I am disappointed. I always think that I have a good shot at winning that tournament, provided my card pool isn’t absolute crap (which it usually is) and barring interference from the malicious mana gods or a flare up of my Chronic Mana Difficulty (both of which also occur with disturbing regularity).

I asked my friend Tom Kelleher, who has so much confidence that we call it “Tomfidence.” When he goes to a PTQ, he expects to Top 8. He says, “Of course, since I expect to win, I would necessarily have to Top 8 first.” And, not infrequently, he does. Three times, on the way to Maryland PTQs, Tom has stated that since he was winning today, “The rest of you must be along for the ride. Though I appreciate the company.” Twice, he won. The third time, he lost to my friend Ed Linskey who had made the trip to MD with Tom, Jordan Berkowitz, and me. If Tom does not at least Top 8, the tournament is a failure for him (in fact, perhaps justifiably, Tom generally characterizes anything less than winning as a failed tournament for him).

But that doesn’t mean the day was a failure; we always grab a few beers and generally a delicious Katz’s lean pastrami sammich, money draft, and have a great time hanging out with the NY (or MD) boys.

He (again, rightfully) beats himself up over errors—good lord, if I hear the story about how if he only hadn’t attacked with Hate Weaver, “which was completely stupid,” he would have Top 8ed an LA Grand Prix four years ago, I am going to have to claw my own eyes out—but not to the extent that it adversely impacts his game. Tom expects to win, and he wins a lot. He can have a big steaming pile of a deck, and when he sits down across from you, most people feel like they are going to lose, because Tom is good, Tom is a topdecking fool (and well known for it—though, of course, part of being a good player is putting yourself in a position to maximize your outs, or topdecks), and well, Tom is Tomfident.

When you walk into a tournament, do you expect to Top 8? If not, is that reasonable (for some people, as described above, it may be), or are you kicking off the day with what will ultimately be a self-fulfilling prophecy? How many people there are better players than you? Are there any? Is it more than seven? Are they good enough to beat you if you both play your best game and their cards are poor? How about if you play your best and they make a mistake? Some of them will certainly have bad decks. Sure, there will be some broken decks, but more likely than not, they will be played by people that are terrible, and if not (or if the terrible player beats you anyway) you can virtually always take one loss and make Top 8.

I think a lot of the reason why the guy that I started off talking about may not have ever qualified is that he lacks the confidence and attitude necessary to qualify. This is an internal matter. Only you can decide that you should win that day. Sure, you can be bolstered by experience, by compliments from players you respect, by ongoing successes, etc… But unlike card valuation or timing, you can’t study confidence. It’s something that at any given time you have, or you don’t. Most great athletes have it. Most great Magic players have it. And when you have it, you tend to perform better.

But Why? But How?

Why should you be confident? Well, as an initial matter, that is a poorly phrased question. The question, if one asks it at all, is why shouldn’t you be confident?

If there are reasons, move to address them. If you don’t know the rules, study them and learn them by heart. If you have poor card evaluation, build Sealed decks or the like with more experienced people, or ask them if they could look at your build and make recommendations. If you don’t have experience, well—you are about to get some. If you don’t understand a Constructed environment, study it and playtest a lot. Then do it some more.

Michael J. Flores is a pretty good example of this last one. In those seasons where he feels like he understands the metagame, he gets much better results than when he does not have that feeling. For example, when Mike built Napster (the black Tutor-based deck Finkel used to win Nationals in 2000), Mike felt like he couldn’t be beaten all season, even in the face of the Replenish epidemic. He was right. Mike felt like he had such a handle on the environment that there was no deck he couldn’t beat… And because of that, he played much better than he usually does. He won a ton of matches, some from positions that most people would look in on and say—Flores is done.

Similarly, in Masques block, Mike was the first person I know of to have played the four Mageta version of mono-white, and each week his deck evolved a little—fewer Rebels, more Disenchants, an extra Kor Haven or Rath’s Edge, even eventually adding Devout Witness to the deck. Mike Top 8’d week after week; he was confident, and he had reason to be.

However, in an environment where Mike does not feel like he has all the answers, Mike is much less confident. His decks of choice change literally by the day. He makes reactionary changes to maindecks or sideboards—which, in the confident environment, would eventually get set aside in favor of minor tweaks to react to the changing metagame. In the uncomfortable environment, Mike’s deck of choice can become unfocused, misfocused, or too narrowly focused, and Mike is unsure of the appropriate route to victory, which of his answers is the right one in a given circumstance, or whether his deck is the Uberdeck. Accordingly, in an environment that Mike does not feel like he fully grasps, Mike waffles more, misplays more, and loses more.

Fortunately for Mike, he grasps more environments than not, so the decks he ultimately uses are creations he is comfortable with and, relatively speaking, successful with. The upside to this for Mike, of course, is that he knows what helps his confidence and that most of the time, he can put in the effort to make sure that he understands the metagame or environment or whatever, if he so chooses. When Mike is confident, he can be a formidable opponent, even though he would rather you continue to think of him as BP Flores.

(For those who haven’t been around since the beginning of time, BP stands for “Bad Player” Flores. You can find some of his old chronicles here. -Knut)

That being said, I am forced to reiterate that confidence is an elusive little snake at times. It is often the epitome of je ne sais quoi (how freaking arrogant does that sound?)—”it” is simply there or not, and sometimes for some, all, or no reason whatsoever. You may be able to think of some ways to get “it,” but often you know what works for you only after it has, well, worked for you.

Alternately, you may have “it,” and then “it” will disappear based on a freakish event or series of events, or for no reason at all. It’s important, however, to realize that:

1) Self-confidence is almost always an important contributing factor to success. 
2) You may not have that intangible fully fleshed-out yet.
3) You may need to do some soul searching to determine if your lack of confidence is misplaced or can be remedied before you can move to the next level of your game.

Examples and Caveats

Now, being confident doesn’t have to mean being a swaggering a**hole—though some people express it that way. Chris Manning, late of Boston and now in Philly, is a very talented player. He had not lost a Mirrodin Limited match this season (sanctioned or draft) until last Saturday. He is also incredibly quiet and subdued—but make no mistake, he is very confident in his ability to win. He went to the first Boston PTQ this year, went 7-0-1 in the Swiss, and drafted to 2-0 and sold the slot in the finals, since after going 9-0-1 he was almost assuredly qualified on rating and he had a potential work conflict. Not bad for your first time playing with the new cards. But while he is quiet and humble, he is very talented and, of course, confident.

Brian Kibler never thinks he is going to lose. Ever. And he isn’t that far from correct… But he doesn’t smack you with it. He just knows that he is a great player and expects that, barring unusual circumstances, he will win most of the time. It helps that many of his opponents also know Brian is a great player and that he will win most of the time. Of course, this becomes less true the higher the level of the event he plays in; on day two of a Grand Prix or a Pro Tour, there aren’t a lot of people who think they have no chance against Brian. In fact, most people there probably—and predictably, given the subject matter of this bit—feel fairly confident that they will win.

Brian is obviously a far more accomplished player than I (but since I am terrible—probably even more terrible than Tim Aten—that is not surprising). When I played against Kibs’ ludicrously powerful draft deck in round 10 of GP: Kansas City, I honestly thought I had a decent shot to beat Glissa SunseekerMolder SlugDeconstruct times three with my black-red/artifact deck.

And you know what? It was close.

Everyone acknowledged Brian’s deck was obviously a 3-0 deck, but despite being in “one of the worst board positions [Kibs] had ever seen,” only one small piece had to have changed to alter the outcome of the match. If he had not Deconstructed my Nuisance Engine (anti-Slug tech!) with his second Deconstruct of the game (I had baited one out earlier hoping that it would protect the engine) and used that mana to cast Molder Slug on his fifth turn (I had taken four)—I think that I win that match. If I get one use out of the Engine, one more hit with my Nim Shrieker before the Slug went to work, or if I had my Myr Enforcer in the bin to regrow with the Betrayal of the Flesh I used to kill Molder Slug (when he was swinging with Slug and Glissa—how fair!) instead of a Pewter Golem (whom Glissa would cheerily first strike to death)…

…Well, once again, there is likely a different outcome.

Tragically, none of that happened, and I lost. And I was not happy. Did I realistically expect to lose to Kibler? I knew it was going to be a hard match, and his deck was undoubtedly more highly powered than mine, but I honestly expected to win that third game when he used the first Deconstruct.

Of course, I was silently saying “Please no Slug, please no Slug!” over and over (I was confident, not delusional). I can be somewhat assuaged by the fact that I don’t think I made any mistakes that match (neither did Kibs), but I can also say that I had not resigned myself to losing when we sat down to play. Afterwards, even though I lost to Kibs, I was confident that I would get it back on track next round. My deck was solid; I was playing well, and having watched the decks being drafted (it was Rochester), I believed that there was no other player or deck at the table that I shouldn’t beat. (I had beaten KK in round 1, and Antonino’s deck was very solid, but he had gone 2-0 and was not in my bracket any longer.) As it turned out, Everything Went To Hell, but I don’t think my confidence was misplaced.

Everyone knows Bob Maher, of course. Is “The Great One” a better player than I? Obviously. Do I still money draft against him? Absolutely. Does he hand me twenty-dollar bills? Sometimes he does, and sometimes he doesn’t. Of course, sometimes I draft with Bob, too, which is almost a guaranteed twenty. If I had a choice, I would rather play a person much worse than Bob—which is to say almost anyone on the planet—but when I do play him, I don’t generally see any reason that I shouldn’t be able to beat him if I have my game on. I don’t get the feeling Bob thinks he’s in for a walk in the park when he plays me either, despite my being almost universally acknowledged as hideously bad.

Something That Worked for Me

Maybe one of the best lessons I got in this regard was from fellow Tongo Nation member and Pro Tour: Paris champ Mike Long. I was at my first Pro Tour, and it was on the Boat—the first Rochester Draft Pro Tour ever. I had what would retrospectively turn out to have been a brutal table, including Preston Poulter, Rob DoughertyScott Johns, and at least two fringe pros (though this was Rob’s first Pro Tour as well).

Second round I had to play Scott, who was about as big a name as there was at the time—he was on Pacific Coast Legends, our rival team, and was very intimidating because of his pedigree. There had been maybe a dozen Pro Tours, and he had won PT: Dallas while making the Top 8 something like four other times. Looking at the pairings, I said “S**t. Scott f***ing Johns. Nice.” Mike asked me what the problem was, and I told him.

He said, “Look, you play me all the time, right?”

“Sure.”

“And how often do you win?”

“Regularly.”

“Right, regularly. And are you scared to play me?”

“No, not really.”

“Do you think Scott is better than me?”

“No.”

“Well then, what is the problem?”

He was right. I played, and I was still a little intimidated. But thinking about the situation in the way Mike described it really helped my confidence a lot. These days, whenever I might feel a little intimidated (which by this point is almost never), I just ask myself, “Is this guy better than Mike was?” and the problem usually takes care of itself from there.

That is, of course, a rather unique experience. Most people don’t have that sort of confidence builder to work from, but trust me, we are almost all terrible. There are always a lot of people at a given event more terrible than you, and you are probably better than you think (relative to your competition). If you play someone better than you—the fringe pro, the local star, or whomever—what do you have to lose? If you win, you just took down a Big Player, which will certainly give you a boost. If you lose, you will almost inevitably learn something, and regardless of what happens, you have to buckle down and focus on winning your next match.

A Few Random Thoughts—Sandbagging, Nemeses, and Streaks

Don’t mistake someone who is exceedingly self-deprecating or who is sandbagging for someone who is not confident. I am a well-known bitcher, and if I get a deck that is not the nuts, everyone in the room knows about all of the failings of my deck from registration until the end of the day. Hopefully, more people laugh at it than are annoyed by it, but it’s just the way I am.

Now, this doesn’t mean that I don’t think I can win. I was just hoping that I wouldn’t have to work as hard or mise as much—which, given my dubious ability, makes an expectedly long day downright arduous.

To be perfectly honest, I do get a lot of real clunkers. At the last NY Mirrodin PTQ, I asked Rich Fein (who had registered the deck I got back) from across the room if I was Dancin’ or Cryin’ (we weren’t allowed to start building yet) and Rich said, “You got my deck? Dude, I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have bothered coming—that may be the worst deck I have ever registered.”

Rich was not far off—the deck was awful, and I thought that it would be a tough road that day (it was, and I ended up getting pretty thoroughly smashed)—but sometimes those decks can click. When I qualified in Philly at the Sunday PTQ of Grand Prix: Philly last year, my deck had some pretty good stuff (like Rorix, the Asskicker), but also contained platinum hits like Goblin Sky Raider. Did I crow about the Rorix all day? Hells no, I showed everyone the Sky Raider, and they got a good laugh, but I felt like I had a good shot even though I was downplaying my chances. Remember—it’s mostly self-confidence and much less projecting confidence to others (though that works for some players also) that will benefit your game. Self-confidence typically won’t win it for you in and of itself, but not having “it” sure can make things a lot more difficult.

There is also one weird situation that comes up sometimes that I want to address. Sometimes there is a player who you think you are, generally speaking, better than (sometimes a little, sometimes a whole lot), who seems to have your number. You never beat this guy. He never does better than 2-x or 3-x, and yet he always has the answer against you, or you have mana issues, or he topdecks or whatever.

This is a huge underminer of confidence.

You sit across from your unexpected nemesis and are just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Most of the time, it already has, because you have resigned yourself to losing. I used to have this kind of relationship with a guy named MJ Sheehan. He beat me constantly, despite making in the neighborhood of four or five of what would be, in most circumstances, game-breaking errors per match (honest). I hated sitting across from MJ, because in my own mind, I simply knew I was going to lose. I was much happier to get matched up with Andrew Cuneo, Derek Rank, John Shuler—hell, anyone other than MJ.

Then, one day, in a Standard tournament, MJ was predictably kicking my mana-screwed ass. He played an Order of the Ebon Hand with eight mana out, and I stared woefully at the White Knight I had on the table, the five life points I had left, and a hand full of wrong answers. I was resigned to fate. But then a spectator said, “I don’t think that Order is, um, legal.” In fact, Order had just rotated out the week before (which, of course, I didn’t notice).

MJ got a match loss. I got a match win. And I never lost to MJ again.

I think I won the next eight or nine times we played. Why? I got over the hump. The streak was broken. I cut loose the albatross. Something changed. I had regained my confidence with respect to playing MJ. It didn’t matter why I won. It just mattered that I had won.

Confidence is a quirky beast that way. Weirdly, while I am a big proponent of probability and statistics and scientific analysis, I also believe in streaks. If I find myself getting my mojo stolen by a particular opponent, I just think of it as a bad streak—that if I can just win one match against this guy, he will never beat me again. Often, this turns out to be true.

A similar example is money drafting with Flores. During Onslaught Block season Flores, Matt Boccio, and I came across to most observers (and to ourselves) as a pretty reasonable money draft team. Mike was on a good Onslaught Block draft streak, and Boccio is almost always at least 2-1. But all of a sudden, Mike and I went through a weird period where we could not win a money draft together, and Mike could not win a money draft against me, all irrespective of opponents or teammates.

After four or five losses, Mike ultimately instituted a “no drafts with or against Becker” rule because he was sure he wouldn’t win either way. I wanted to keep drafting together, in order to break the streak. Our decks were usually good. We weren’t making grievous errors (well, more than our usual share anyway), but I had to cajole Mike into making about six attempts before we finally squeezed out a cards-only match against a couple of very poor players with atrocious decks. The streak had been broken, and now we didn’t have to worry about it anymore. Mike was unconvinced, but I just kept making a huge deal out of the breaking of the streak, and Mike eventually got on board. We went on to win something like our next four drafts.

What happened there? Lack of confidence.

Of course, streaks can help you out as well. I have a really good historical record against my friend (and Rookie of the Year runner-up) Craig Krempels. I’m 4-0 against him in sanctioned events and not much worse than that unsanctioned (though I did lose to him in sanctioned team play last year). I don’t know why, but things seem to click well for me against Craig, so when I get paired against him, I feel pretty good about my chances, even if his deck is a bad matchup for me.

So if you are on a bad streak or have a nemesis issue, look for anything to break out of it. If you are on a good streak, run the hell out of it.

Conclusion

Back to the main point here. Go ahead and ask yourself why you are intimidated by the best player in the area. Why are you sure that the pro you are playing always has the Counterspell or the Dark Banishing or whatever? Why are you sure your opponent has the Giant Growth when he swings his 1/1 into your 3/4? Confidence, confidence, confidence. Of course, there is no reason to play stupidly either—he or she may, in fact, have the Growth he or she is professing. (I know I always do.) Just think about why you are intimidated by someone, and decide whether that intimidation is really justified, or if you are merely lacking confidence in yourself.

So, kids, while there is no need to delude yourself about your chances in a PT, a PTQ, or any other tournament—you will undoubtedly lose more tournaments than you win—there is also almost no reason for you to start the day expecting to lose. Unless of course, you see me at the same tournament; because as Tom might say, “since I will clearly be winning, I have to assume that you all are along for the ride”—though I do appreciate the company.

As per usual, feedback is always welcome.

Jon Becker
tongonation@hotmail.com