SCG Talent Search – The Little Death

Tuesday, November 30th – What does it mean that fear is a mind-killer? How does this affect us when we play Magic? Tom Reeve has seen the face of fear and wants to teach you how to overcome it in your game.

First things first, for any students of French literature reading this, no, not


one. Such things are, I feel, not well suited for the Limited category of the Talent Search. Perhaps I could recommend someone else’s
fine work

if your interests lie more in that direction?

The “little death” that I’m here to talk about today is something else entirely. The mind-killer.

“I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.”

The Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear,


Fear is a powerful emotion. It can warp our perceptions, change our behavior, influence our decisions. Much of the time, we won’t even notice it working on us – it’s just part of the background noise of our decision-making process. Today, I’m going to walk you through the stages of a draft and point out some of the ways that fear might be compromising your performance. And while I can’t provide all the answers for how to master it, as with many things, recognizing the problem is the first step towards fixing it.

(Oh, and if you haven’t actually read

Do it today, if not sooner. Well, start at least; it’s a long book.)

So, you walk into your local store, or gaming group, or pub. You catch up with your friends; you might do some trading, or in the case of the enlightened British Magic community, pay a visit to the bar. You reach for the draft sign-up sheet and scrawl your name and DCI number in a space. Then your eye drifts up across the sheet, taking in the other names.

Congratulations, you’ve reached…

Opportunity for Fear 1: The Competition

Much of the time, signing up for a draft or sitting down at the table is a pretty painless process. If you’re playing with a bunch of people that you know are roughly at your own level of skill, there won’t be any fear here to conquer. But a table you know to be weak or a table you know to be (or fear to be) particularly strong can start tripping you up before you so much as shred your first booster wrapper. A ‘soft’ table can push you in one of two directions – overconfidence, which generally manifests in sloppier play, looser kept opening hands, lack of attention, or fear of embarrassment. Fear of losing to ‘the scrubs,’ of being shown up.

While the dangers of arrogance are obvious, fear is more insidious. Instead of not paying enough attention, we become overcautious. We assume the worst of our neighbors; we might think that because they’re ‘not good enough to send signals’ that the cards they’re passing us are meaningless, floating in an information vacuum. We’re loathe to change direction in the draft, for fear of our neighbors somehow messing up our plans. We see that sixth pick Shatter and don’t give it the weight we normally might, because we’re afraid to switch into red on the left of someone who might be drafting red without knowing how good Shatter is.

The truth is, of course, that the sending and receiving of signals doesn’t have to be a deliberate, collaborative process. You can encourage someone you’re feeding into a color without them having ever read a single article about the importance of signaling, and you can get information from a pack you’re receiving even if the guy upstream of you isn’t knowingly sending it. And besides, if someone’s bad enough at drafting Scars of Mirrodin to not know that Shatter is good, are you really that scared of drafting red to their left?

On the opposite extreme, so often I’ve heard players sitting down for a draft bemoan the number of ‘good players’ in it. Unless you’re actually approaching the draft as someone grinding 8-4s for profit might (and I’m not sure that ‘grinding 8-4s for profit’ is even a real thing, relative to grinding Constructed queues), then better players in your draft should be welcomed with open arms. When you fear the other players in your draft, you compromise yourself completely. You’ll succumb to fatalism, assume that no matter what you do you can’t win, and start drafting and playing sloppily as a result. Not only does this make playing in the event a waste of time, but it throws away

valuable resource. One of the tips for improving as a Magic player (and everyone who writes on the subject agrees) is this –
play against people better than you.

In drafts, you even get the bonus of being able to talk to them about the draft itself, as well as the plays and decisions in your own match.

Oh, and for the record, I would rather draft with better players for another reason – they behave much more consistently within the draft. They’re less likely to arbitrarily switch colors, to hate-draft rares first-pick, or hate-draft anything before it’s reasonable to do so. They’re more likely to pay some attention to any signals you do try to send and may even deliberately send some your way to pick up. They may be favored once you get out of the draft and onto the field of battle, but the trip there won’t be the high-variance roller-coaster ride that a draft with weaker players can be. (Now, don’t go getting all
afraid of roller coasters

on me…)

Now, the draft is done, and you’re assembling the

contraption that you hope is going to catapult you to fortune, fame, and five booster packs (where I draft, anyway). And here, again, fear can distort your thinking.

Opportunity for Fear 2: The Build

Should you run that third color? Should you maindeck that Wing Puncture? Should you run that seventeenth land?

Building a draft deck involves finding answers to a lot of questions. Some of them can be expressed in largely mathematical terms or at least be understood as mathematical in nature even if the expression is beyond you (or, let’s be honest here, me). How many of each land type to run, for example, is more complex a question to answer than by counting up mana symbols (although it will often be a decent approximation). Beyond that, there are always cards in draft formats that are particularly good against certain specific archetypes. These decisions are too important to be left in the hands of an emotion as flighty as fear.

One of the benefits of gaining some understanding of the mathematics of mana is that it can banish the fears associated with mana bases. What if I don’t draw my main color? What if I draw my splash card but not the mana to cast it? What if I don’t have GG on turn 2 for my Nissa’s Chosen?

These are all questions that can be answered more or less conclusively with the right tools, and even flirting with those tools can start to give your instincts something to work from. In addition, the gut, fear-informed response to questions like this can cut off whole levels of analysis – your instinctive fear of splashing and making your deck less stable might be preventing a more dispassionate analysis that, in reality, your deck without the splash is simply not powerful enough to rely on and that trading stability for the potential for more powerful draws will give you the best chance of a winning result.

As for the ‘maindeck sideboard’ cards, again it’s simply a matter of applying reason and logic to a process that fear shortcuts completely. Let’s say that you’ve drafted a U/W metalcraft deck in Scars of Mirrodin. Infect is the big bogeyman, and who doesn’t just

losing to Untamed Might or to Tainted Strike on some unreasonable dork that shouldn’t even be in your opponent’s deck?

But does that mean you should maindeck Soul Parry or Loxodon Wayfarer? Your fear says ‘yes’; most people’s response after a moment’s reflection will be ‘no,’ and the real answer is something along the lines of ‘probably not, but it depends.’ And ‘probably not, but it depends’ is not an answer that fear will

lead you to.

If you noticed a lot of particularly infect-heavy packs in your draft, or an unusual number of Untamed Mights going around, maybe. If you’re comfortable in your 22’s ability to beat everything else, maybe you can afford for number 23 to be an insurance policy against something that could steal wins off you. Remember that most tables will support at most three infect drafters with reasonable decks, and often at least one of those won’t even be in green.

So, you’ve finished your deck. You saunter over to check the pairings, dump yourself in the right seat, shake your opponent by the hand, shuffle, present, shuffle, draw seven, look at your hand…

Opportunity for Fear 3: The

Boy, all sorts of things to be afraid of here. Too many lands? Too few lands? Not enough early game? No removal? Removal, but no worthwhile creatures?

At this point, you may well be correctly thinking ‘but those are all real concerns!’ And they are. The list above, and more, are all things that you need to be
thinking about and assessing clearly.

Fear won’t let you do that.

When you have so many complicated factors at play in deciding whether a hand is good enough, the last thing you want is an irrational voice in your head prodding you with a stick until you throw your hand away out of emotion rather than reason. As with my comments on mana bases above, this is somewhere that you want as many real numbers backing up your decisions as possible, and you need to be thinking about what numbers are important both in the context of the hand you’re looking at, the rest of your deck, and whatever you know about your opponent’s deck (particularly games 2 and 3). If you’re looking at a two-lander on the draw in a seventeen-land draft deck, does it help to know that there’s a 15% chance of missing your third land drop and only a 7.5% chance of missing your third land drop and not finding it turn 4 either? Of course it does.

And while you won’t be able to do that kind of calculation on the fly, you can do some research and at least start remembering some ballpark figures and approximations. If the hand you’re looking at can operate comfortably on three land, that’s an easy keep. If you’re playing an aggressive deck that you expect will need to hit a two-drop to be in good shape to win the game, a hand with no two-drop on the draw and six in the deck is only looking at a 34% shot of drawing one for turn 2, but a 65% chance of mulliganing into a hand with at least one.

The moral of the story, really, is that without actually looking at the numbers, your ‘gut feelings’ about mulligan decisions could easily be consistently steering you wrong. Fear of mana-screw could make you throw that two-lander back; fear of mulliganing in general might drive you to take that 34% shot at a two-drop, rather than trading in a card to nearly double your chances.

While articles about the mathematics of Magic can be dry, I’d recommend that anyone looking to improve steel themselves and try to get through a couple every now and then. The more you can train yourself to think of your deck as a probabilistic, mathematical object, rather than some kind of mystical, capricious arbiter of fate, the easier it will be to make your decisions rationally.

Of course, sometimes you’ll need to play to the low-percentage outcome – if it’s game 3 and your opponent’s deck vastly out-powers your own in the late game, that super-aggressive hand that needs to get lucky with a couple of things might just be a rational keep. But when you make those decisions to go with a high-risk strategy, you need to know that’s what you’re doing and be doing it for the right reasons.

Made your decision? Good, because it’s time for the big one!

Opportunity for Fear 4: The Game

When it comes to the actual game itself, there are a lot of things that you could fear. Screw, flood, your opponent’s topdecks, his full grip,
Blue Steel,


Thankfully, at least some of this ground has been covered before me. In fact, one of the most significant ways that fear can compromise you was written about so expertly by Dan Paskins, Red Mage Extraordinaire, King, Recruiter, and Ringleader of Goblins, first-ballot inductee to the
Dead Elf

Hall of Fame, that it has become known in more knowledgeable circles simply as
Go and read that article. I’ll wait.

Put simply, the biggest lesson to draw from Paskins is that you should never

what your opponent might have. Anticipate it? Sure. Attempt to predict it? Absolutely! Fear it? Why on earth would you want to do that?

If you can get as far as predicting what they might do and anticipating when they might do it, why would you swerve off the road into the ditch of fear when you could take

more step in the right direction and start working out how you can thwart their evil schemes?

For example, instead of fearing the ravages of the infect decks in Scars of Mirrodin Draft, start paying proper attention to the late picks in your drafts. There are a

of cards that go around in the dregs of Scars boosters that can give you value against infect – high-toughness damage sinks like Plated Seastrider and Loxodon Wayfarer, blocking aids like Bladed Pinions and Seize the Initiative, and general purpose anti-infect good eggs like Kuldotha Rebirth, Soul Parry, and Screeching Silcaw (yes, really; murders Plague Stingers like nobody’s business and trades with Tel-Jilad Fallen all day).

And if there’s nothing

can do to thwart what you’re anticipating

could do… then stop worrying about it, and make sure you play such that you’ll beat them if they
don’t have it.

Because you know what? A lot of the time, they don’t. They don’t have the counterspell. They don’t have the removal spell. They don’t even have the Untamed Might! If you’re scared enough of Untamed Might that you want to chump every poison guy you see, you need to be doing so on the understanding that even if you never get hit with Untamed Might, you still actually need to win the game somehow.

When that Cystbearer swings into your board that can’t comfortably trade with it, don’t just snap-block because they might have it. Take a second, and work out how you’re going to win the game if you start making
awkward blocks

every turn. Think about what your draws are going to have to be like for that plan to work and how likely you are to hit those draws. And if you come up with ‘very unlikely indeed,’ it might just be time to suck it up, reach for the poison counters, and race them.

And if they have it, well, they have it. Shake their hand, ask them if they spotted you screwing up, try to think of things you could’ve done differently, and move on.

As an aside, there is one thing that you should be genuinely terrified of when you’re playing and that is a
pig with unusually large tusks.

For real, yo. If Emrakul, the Aeons Torn is scared of that pig, you think I’m getting in its way?

Sigh. Intimidate really is kind of stupid. Fear? Fear kind of worked, you know? Things with fear should be nightmarish horrors from some twisted hell-dimension. Or at least, y’know, a

Something supernatural, something magically horrifying. Not a pig. Or a not-even-all-that-big Wurm. You’re telling me that my hapless Sunspear Shikari is happy to be horribly mauled, mutilated, stomped into a mud hole, and devoured by an Engulfing Slagwurm, but a noisy 4/4 is just too much? Or a pig
that it could actually beat in a fight?

And then turn into delicious bacon? Seriously, has nothing that fears Bladetusk Boar ever tasted bacon?


But the biggest thing you can train yourself not to fear? It isn’t cards, or mana-screw, or better players. It’s

Because fearing losing is fearing something that will happen, like clockwork, almost every tournament you play in. What percentage of matches do you think Kai Budde and Jon Finkel have won over the course of their careers? 90%? 80%? Try under 65%. The best players in the world, ever, not close, and they’ve lost a third of their matches.

Do you think they got that far by being

to lose? Losing is going to happen. You shouldn’t want it to happen, and you should do everything you can to stop it happening, but you’re going to fail a significant proportion of the time. And you

to be okay with that. Being too afraid to lose clouds your judgment while playing, and, worse, turns matches you lose into things you don’t want to think about. And things you don’t want to think about, you aren’t going to learn from.

Oh, one more note before I wrap up this beast; after the dust has settled…

Opportunity for Fear 5: The Debrief

There’s really one thing to fear here that can really stand in your way after the game as you try to improve as a Magic player; embarrassment. You can learn a lot from your opponents, or even from spectators, and the only thing standing between you and that knowledge is fear. (Well, sometimes they’ll turn out to be a jacka**, but that’s not your problem.)

Whether or not there were any particularly tough calls that you had to agonize over, get into the habit of being ready to ask for, and take on, advice. Even if the match you’ve just finished was completely straightforward, there are plenty of things that you can ask for input on – tough draft picks, deckbuilding decisions, even judgment calls in earlier matches, and as long as you’re polite and friendly, most people will be happy to help you out (as long as they aren’t in critical danger of running out of beer and thus distracted).

This doesn’t, of course, mean that you have to be a sponge, passively absorbing information. Don’t be afraid to disagree, to question what you’re told. Stay respectful, and disagree when you have good reason, and you’ll learn more than you would just timidly accepting what you hear.

So there you have it. Only a toe-dip in the murky pool of the psychology of Magic, but hopefully one that rings true for at least some of you; otherwise I’ll have to turn to my Votebot army again, and I can’t rely on them forever (hard-coded vote limit, don’t you know.) In part, my drive to write this article comes from the fact that I’m writing from experience – I’ve been guilty of all the weakness I’ve warned you against, and I’m sure I will be again. Just as Kai doesn’t win all of his matches, none of us will ever be in complete control of our emotions at every point in every match. All we can do is try to banish fear with evidence and reason where we can and try to build that winning percentage up to Hall of Fame levels.

Now, I’ve obviously written some very different pieces so far for this Talent Search, and at this point I’d like to turn to my audience (those who liked at least one of said articles, at least) with a request – of what I’ve written so far, what have

found most compelling, or most useful, or most suited to my writing style? While I’m privileged to have a great panel of judges giving great feedback, I’m always looking for feedback from anyone prepared to take the time to give it. Give me a shout in the forums, and I hope to see you all again in a couple of weeks!