When I read Mark Rosewater article “Topical Blend #1 — To Err is Human” in 2005,
I knew that it was destined to be a â€˜landmark’ piece of writing. Not only was it humorous and insightful — it opened up a new
intellectual world for me and, I suspect, for many other Magic players. While Mark wrote about lessons that he learned in terms of card design, his
article taught me to think about the game itself outside of the context of the game. Sure, writers have analyzed meta-theory, and many pro
players have written about the camaraderie inherent in traveling to tournaments… but this… this clearly and applicably
illustrated the link between the practical life lessons that we experience as human beings and our approach to playing the game.
Sometimes even the simplest of lessons are best understood when they are expressed outside of their natural context. The format of a “Topical
Blend” is an excellent platform with which to merge life and Magic. I have been playing the game for quite a long time, and I’ve observed
some interesting parallels between girls who I have dated and mistakes that I’ve made in selecting, modifying, and playing decks. Some of the
simplest and most profound lessons that I’ve been able to apply to Magic only have become clear to me when I’ve experienced them more
viscerally though the process of living.
Girl #1 — Sophie*
It was quite a few years ago, right after I finished my undergraduate work at college, when I had my first really â€˜bad’ breakup…
which wasn’t with Sophie. You see, I was in the phase right afterwards, you know — the phase when you promise yourself that you’re
going to become more comfortable with yourself, but at the same time, your eyes wander a bit more than they should? I was out at a bowling alley with
my friend John and his wife and a few acquaintances, both male and female.
I was just chilling, hoping not to break my wrist as I tried in vain to throw the heaviest ball in the room down the alley in lieu of medically
assessing my testosterone levels when my friend’s wife leaned over to me and said, with a wink,
“You know, that girl Sophie is really cute!”
“Oh?” I deadpanned.
And thus began an awkward conversation with Sophie, some of which focused on her father, Bill.
We saw each other several times over the ensuing weeks. Thinking back, we spent a lot of time talking about her father and mother… and her father
frequently had a new name.
At the time, I didn’t notice — or, frankly, care — what her dad’s name was, and so I innocently let the detail slip by.
Things came to a head one evening when we were watching a movie, and she told me the “Story of the Birthday Goat,” which I can summarize in
“One year for my birthday my mother gave me a goat for my birthday, but then we had to sacrifice it in a ritual in the basement because her
seventh husband was a Satanist.”
I realized that I was treading water deep in a pool that was waaaay out of my depth, and I swum to the surface as quickly as I could. In
retrospect, I may have overreacted, and I honestly believe that she was and is a very nice young woman, but this wasn’t something that I was
prepared to handle at the time.
If only I had paid attention to her fathers’ names.
The Lesson: Small Details Matter
In the Extended PTQ season following Pro Tour Berlin in 2008, Elves combo — which took six of the Top 8 spots — was my PTQ deck of choice.
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Wirewood Symbiote
- 1 Eternal Witness
- 2 Viridian Shaman
- 4 Elves of Deep Shadow
- 4 Birchlore Rangers
- 4 Heritage Druid
- 4 Nettle Sentinel
- 1 Regal Force
- 4 Elvish Visionary
This was one of the few seasons when my schedule allowed me to travel to several PTQs, and in the first two tournaments I played that season, I began
5-0 with a Chord of Calling variant only to miss the Top 8. One of my losses was due to a failure to play around Brain Freeze, which became popular
sideboard tech in a number of decks.
My solution was to search through my collection for a trump card.
I found a stubborn lizard — Obstinate Familiar — for which I could tutor at instant speed to prevent myself from losing to an empty
There was only one small detail.
Obstinate Familiar is from Odyssey… which wasn’t a legal set. So when I tutored for it — I lost the game anyway, because I hadn’t looked at the expansion symbol.
Magic is nothing if not a game of particulars, and even small, seemingly insignificant details can affect our performance in a tournament.
Girl #2 — Jill
Now Jill is the girl from the bad college breakup. I began dating Jill in my sophomore year of college because we seemed to share a lot of
interests. We had similar types of humor (although mine is substantially drier); we liked the same movies… basically, we shared a lot of things
that aren’t very important but that can seem to a nineteen-year-old college student to be a solid, romantic foundation.
Oh… and we fought. A lot. It honestly wasn’t either of our faults… we just had very oppositional personalities that led to some real fire.
After a particularly irritating argument, I recall saying… “Sometimes I wish she was a man so I could kick her in the junk.”
Oh Cupid… could your arrow be any keener?
And we fought. For two full years. This wasn’t Sparta… it was simply madness.
Surprisingly, the breakup didn’t affect me badly due to tempers running high or a final fistfight between us… rather, I suffered from what
I loosely will call Stockholm Syndrome, except that none of the components actually were serious. I just didn’t know what to do outside of the
context of what I knew.
“Now who am I going to provoke?”
The Lesson: Don’t Get Attached to a Deck Simply Because It’s the “Deck You Know”
Waaay back in 2005, I played in a moderately sized PTQ in Cincinnati, Ohio, with a “Scepter Chant” deck that I adored.
This was to be my only PTQ of that season, although I also played in and won a small (~25-person) GPT the next weekend. I thought, foolishly —
“This deck Top 8s PTQs and wins GPTs! How insane!”
So, no matter how the Extended format developed, I kept trying to play the same deck… one that no one else was playing. Stupid, stupid, stupid! I
had this sort of sick relationship with the deck, where, regardless of the evidence, I was convinced that I’d just run the tournament with a
series of turn 2 Isochron Scepters.
Looking through my DCI history to jog my memory… I played variants of the deck all the way through the 2007 Extended qualifier season for
Yokohama, never doing better than 5-2 in a given tournament.
Girl #3 — Naomi
When it comes to dating, one of the dangers of the Internet is that it lets you â€˜get to know people’ without ever really knowing who they
are. This was the case with Naomi. She lived almost fifty miles away from me, so after we met, we spent a lot of time â€˜getting to know each
other’ through instant messaging services and over the phone.
I’ll be honest — I probably could’ve been more invested at this stage. I can think of quite a few instances where I was
“engrossed” in a conversation while drafting for hours on end on MODO. What I thought I had found, though, was someone with whom I shared a
lot — similar tastes in literature, music, movies, entertainment (sound familiar? It’s not always a winning formula). Further, we seemed to
have compatible personalities, although I’m not so sure of this fact now because I’ve realized that I probably could have a great time
instant messaging a monkey throwing rocks at a keyboard if I’m drafting a good deck.
When I drove up to her house, though, she seemed almost hostile… not so much in the sense of “I don’t want you here” but in the
“I’m a vegetarian; want to fight about it?”
“I don’t want to go out to eat… want to fight about it?”
I mean, she didn’t actually say “want to fight about it” like the angry Irish character from Family Guy (at least, that’s who I
envision as I write those lines), but the challenge was implied.
My response was a pretty tepid “no thanks.” I’d had enough of that several years before. We all have better things to do
with our lives than to fight about things that aren’t important to us, right?
Did I miss this aspect of her personality because I’d opened two copies of Ajani Vengeant in a row?
I suppose that our breakup was just as fitting. I was playing B/W Tokens at FNM in the final round against 5C Control, and I had an amazing hand. I
thought to myself “Literally, the only way I can lose this is if he plays Plumeveil on turns 3, 4, 5, and 6 to buy himself time to Cruel
Ultimatum.” It happened, and I walked outside, called Naomi, and told her that it â€˜wasn’t working.’
If I recall, I also threw in something like “P.S. I really, really enjoy steak.”
I calmly walked back into the store, shook my opponent’s hand, and said, “Good game, sir.”
The Lesson: Just Because Something Looks Good on Paper Doesn’t Mean That It Will Work For You
This is a mistake that I make all the time when playing Magic, and it’s one that we, as competitive Magic players, will continue to make, especially
now that innovation in deckbuilding has become an online phenomenon. The best example I can imagine of this lesson, though, doesn’t involve me
but rather a friend’s ill-fated venture with Sylvain Lauriol’s deck Sunny Side Up from 2006.
Does this look like a deck that we can pick up and immediately pilot to success? Probably not. The deck had demonstrated successful finishes, and it
actually looks very conceptually powerful, but, it’s important to understand how we can react to our opponents’ lines of play. This deck
isn’t a streamlined combo deck where we can play Egg, Egg, Egg, lol, Brain Freeze, and win — it requires a bit of finesse. It requires, in
other words, some experience.
My friend spent a lot of time sacrificing Eggs, pausing, and awkwardly saying “Pass turn” that PTQ.
Sometimes, we just need to interact with a deck, meaningfully, before we can succeed with it.
Girl #4 — Kelly
If you only take one thing away from this article, let it be this section and the associated lesson.
I met Kelly while I was working on my Master’s degree — she was still an undergraduate, but she seemed very interested in me, and she
pursued me with a bit of aggression, so I capitulated, and we began dating.
We actually ended up dating for quite a while… over three years, and things appeared to be going well… for a while.
One day, after I returned home from work and walked over to the kitchen to begin cooking dinner, she sat me down on the couch and presented the idea
that she wanted to become polyamorous. It wasn’t that there was a lack of interest in me, she explained, but that I was one of her first
boyfriends, and she didn’t want to settle down without having had time to play the field.
Now, my first, most persistent thought is that it was me.
As I resisted the change, I asked her for a few weeks for time to think; my most insidious thought was that this change was a reflection of who I am — if I were somehow different, this desire would not have manifested.
I sat down with her and philosophized. I listed all of my flaws, obvious and hidden, and attempted to identify which of them might have caused such a
drastic shift in her thinking.
I couldn’t figure it out
We finally broke up because she wasn’t willing to put off her idea any longer, and I wasn’t willing to exist in a polyamorous relationship.
She started dating another man immediately, and I thought “Ah hah! I was right. It was me all along.” But then she left him too and fairly
quickly because he wanted her all to himself.
It was then that I came to a very important realization about life, one that I intuitively had understood but that I had never realized in a
more meaningful way:
just because we, as human beings, have flaws, does not mean that every bad thing that happens to us causally is linked to one or more of those
The Lesson: Sometimes It’s NOT You — So Keep Trying
Early in 2009, Cedric Phillips was quite excited about the R/W
Kithkin deck that he pioneered and with which he smashed face in Kyoto. I’d had some success playing his decks before, so I threw a slightly
modified list together and took it to FNM… where I didn’t do very well.
I knew that it wasn’t a bad decklist — after all, something like 58/60ths of the maindeck recently had succeeded at a Pro Tour. That meant,
of course, that it must have been me. I had made mistakes. I wasn’t good enough with the deck.
Some of my friends tried to get me to ignore what was a meaningless but ultimately disheartening performance with the deck and to attend the SCG Open
the next day with the same deck. They offered encouragement like:
“Hey, they have pretty cheap side drafts.”
“Just come to hang out!”
So I showed up, and somehow went 8-0-2 with the exact same deck.
I didn’t do very much differently on Saturday than I had on Friday. What had changed?
I guess I drew better cards than my opponents
. Seems simple, right?
In order to be accepted within the community of Magic players, it seems that we often are asked to insult or to downplay our abilities. When we make
mistakes, it’s expected that we will say “Obviously. I’m such trash.” When we talk about how we performed at a recent tournament, we
always need to insert the caveat “I’m awful at this game.” Why?
As people who want to improve our game, we acutely are aware of the fact that we frequently make suboptimal plays. As such, we socially push each other
to decry the concept of â€˜variance’ when we finish a tournament. At first, this makes sense. Players who suggest that all of their successes
are due to â€˜good plays’ and that all of their failings are due to â€˜bad variance’ typically do not improve. In the same vein,
good Magic players always are criticizing their own plays because that’s how we learn.
However, many players, especially at the PTQ level, take this too far and actually begin to internalize their criticism, which often is stated in the
extreme to meet social expectations of other players (i.e. we typically applaud players who play fairly well but who criticize themselves absurdly
harshly). I have seen far too many talented players â€˜burn out’ and quit the game because they told themselves one too many times that they
were trash and had no business playing in tournaments.
We all make mistakes, and very few of us ever have played a perfect game of Magic. Sometimes it’s us — we often lose to our mistakes, and
we learn by examining those mistakes. But sometimes… sometimes… it’s not us.
* All names in the stories have been changed.