Sullivan Library – Learning From The Big Mistakes

Read Adrian Sullivan every Tuesday... at StarCityGames.com!Honesty in our mistakes, and learning from those mistakes, seems to be the current topic of choice. Today’s Sullivan Library sees Adrian look back over his illustrious tournament career, and some of the mistakes he’s made, in order to reveal the important lessons that each one taught. If you’re looking to improve your game, let Adrian show the way!

Over the years, my rating has fluctuated all over the place. I’ve been rated in the Top 10 in the world a few times, but it’s been a few years since my last stint there. Usually, though, I’m a ways away from that rating.

I was coming back from Pro Tour: Valencia, talking with fellow Madisonian Gaudenis Vidugiris about our performances. He went 6-4, and I went an even more lackluster 5-5. One of the things that seemed interesting, though, was how in control of our performances that we felt we had been. He largely felt, given his deck and the cards he drew in his matches, that he had done about right, though maybe a tiny decision might have shifted things one way or another. I, on the other hand, could point to two moments in the tournament where I had clearly punted the match.

The tournament went astray for me on that first day of flooding. I was incredibly ready for my day and had managed to get my internal clock set to just the right spot so that I felt rested and ready. That night, after a day of largely d*cking around, I went out and about with the English (and the odd Irishman) and got back relatively early to my hotel room with fellow Madisonian Mike Hron. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get to sleep for the life of me, and my next day was fraught with errors.

I’ve thought about my errors in that event for a long time. One of the things that becomes easier as I’ve gotten older is evaluating moments coolly, after the fact, and figuring out what it was that I did wrong. Taking the time to do this is actually pretty critical. There was a regionally famous Magic player in the Midwest about ten years ago. She was incredibly attractive, and excelled quickly in the PTQ scene, doing great. But she never seemed to acknowledge her own mistakes. At a certain point she not only stopped developing as a player, but actually stagnated because she wasn’t keeping up with the game. She assumed that she was already so good – she knew what she was doing.

Don’t do that.

Failing to try to identify what you’re doing wrong can only result in atrophy. If you want to keep your edge, there are so many things that you need to be doing. Learning from how you’ve messed up is one of these things.

Here is a chronicle of some important mistakes I’ve made at some of the major events that I’ve played at.

Pro Tour: Chicago, 1997 — Buehler’s Chicago

This was my first Pro Tour. I worked incredibly hard to get onto the Pro Tour, and I finally succeeded with a Mono-Blue Ophidian deck that was descended from Ronny Serio’s Winding Canyons deck from the first weekend of Weatherlight’s legality. I wrote a killer tournament report about it, but my deck was unsurprisingly overshadowed by Brian Kibler Grand Prix win with Mono-Blue Ophidian from that same weekend. Still, bruised ego aside, I was just incredibly excited to be on the Pro Tour.

I worked hard at preparing for the Pro Tour. This was just before I formed Cabal Rogue, but I had been picking soon-to-be-Cabal Rogue member Andy Wolf’s brain apart about his Wolf Pack Pox deck (a deck I mention in my old Wizards column), and decided that it was going to be my deck for the tournament. I was really excited about the deck. It just felt like it had so much going on for it. Pox was a real beating against Necropotence, and even though there were a lot of different cards in the format, I was sure that it was the deck to go with. It felt especially good because of the power of Animate Dead and Dance of the Dead, both on my own Triskelions and on their dead men.

I did abysmally. I think I finished 2-5, and I shudder to even think about it. I was so interested in building the Wolf Pack Pox deck, I didn’t actually bother to try to explore the format, or even consider what it was that other people would be playing fully. “This deck can be translated into another format,” I told myself, trying to will it into being. What might be worse, is that I convinced Elihu Feustel (the man who built the deck Buehler used to qualify for the PT) to replay his Sands-Poise deck, rebuilt for this larger format.

The mistake: Insisting on importing a particular deck into a format.
The lesson: Explore each format as its own entity, even when you are borrowing on the past.

Pro Tour: Los Angeles 1998 — Dave Price’s LA

Fully armed with the lessons of the past, I explored the format for LA endlessly. It had become clear to me that the default deck was almost certainly going to be Mono-Red. I worked on figuring out what those Red decks might look like. Cabal Rogue was fully functioning at this point, and one of our members, that crazy Andy Wolf, again, would Top 8, though he ended up playing something he worked with on his own. There would be four Madison players at the event, and four Cabal Rogue players at the event, so in addition to all of the people I had come to know from PTQs and the previous PT, I had a lot of people there to rely on for advice and support.

I ended up playing a Dancing Gnomes deck that I called “Jet Blue,” and it is still a choice that I think was quite good.

2 Corpse Dance
4 Counterspell
2 Dark Banishing
2 Diabolic Edict
4 Dismiss
3 Dream Cache
1 Ertai’s Meddling
3 Evincar’s Justice
4 Jet Medallion
2 Phyrexian Grimoire
2 Power Sink
3 Whispers of the Muse
4 Bottle Gnomes
1 Dauthi Mindripper
9 Island
4 Reflecting Pool
4 Rootwater Depths
7 Swamp

It still shows that early roughness that plagued a lot of decks from that era, but the concept was incredibly solid, and it performed beautifully against all of the Red decks that I had tested against.

Lan D. Ho sent me into a spiral. He was playing Red, and he clobbered me. Turn 2, he dropped an Ancient Tomb, and hit me with a Stone Rain. Turn 3, he dropped a Lightning Elemental, and he followed up on the next turn with a Scorched Earth for two. I had been on the draw, and my Dismisses were looking at me, laughing, though I did have out a nifty Jet Medallion.

I sided in my Chills. He dropped a Jackal Pup. I followed up with a Chill. He dropped another Jackal Pup off of an Ancient Tomb. I hunted and hunted, but never did find an answer. His deck was a little different than the typical Red deck, but here’s the thing about big events: people will come up with different takes on a format than you do. His Ancient Tombs ended up being fairly common at the event, and that little innovation turned around a sideboarded matchup to his favor.

I’d be talking about this match with Alan Webter and Jamie Wakefield the next day. “You know what you did wrong, don’t you?” Webter asked me.


“You see a card like Chill and you say to yourself the same thing that nearly everyone does: ‘Oooh, a card good against Red.’ The thing is, it doesn’t really do anything to their plan. It slows them down, but they still get to keep doing what they want to you. Every time I see that card, I tell people to take it out and put in Propaganda. Chill hits them whenever they cast something new, but they aren’t going to win unless they’re attacking, and Propaganda totally robs them of their options.”

We talked it out, and talked it out, but eventually, I decided to try it out in a $1000 side tournament the next day. I smashed everyone until I ran into Olle Rade in the finals, and he beat me in a hard fought three-game match. The Propagandas weren’t of any use against his Black/Blue deck, but they were killer against every Red deck I faced.

The mistake: Mischaracterizing the problem of a matchup for its symptoms.
The lesson: Figure out how a deck is actually beating you, and tailor your answers accordingly, rather than using generic answers that might not address the problem.

Pro Tour: Rome — Combo Rules

Much like Los Angeles, there was a lot of hard work put into the format by Cabal Rogue. Only me and my friend Zaid Maxwell were qualified for the event, but the deck we were armed with was pretty stellar, the mighty Necropotence-fueled Panda Naught. Special mention has to go to the inimitable Jacob “Danger” Janoska for his help with the deck, as well as my primary playtest partner, Zaid. In the end, this deck has been called one of the most important decks in Magic, and I’m proud of the work I put into it. I decided to give myself three match losses by taking a nap, and asking my friends I was with to watch my deck. Alas, they didn’t, and when I woke up, I was deckless, and went from one loss to four losses in a heartbeat.

The event was, overall, a real blast. I met a lot of people, networked a lot, and saw some incredible things. I still, though, can’t help but think back to my match against Ben Farkas.

Farkas was also armed with a new deck: High Tide. The New Jersey crew and the Italians had each independently come up with a very potent High Tide deck. This match ended up being a feature match, and tons of people watched me flub this one.

My problem was simple: I saw Islands, and I slow-played it. I didn’t want to get smashed by a Force of Will, and so I developed conservatively so that I could push through the Force of Wills and counters in one fell turn. My Necropotence activations were feeble: three here, two there. Keep full. Keep full.

This is not the way to play with Necropotence. I have a god-damned tank. I shouldn’t be minding the roses! Especially, after board, I’m armed with fistfuls of Red Blasts and Duresses. What was I thinking? I had, in essence The Fear. Dan Paskins would shake his head at me, and I should know better. My deck, after all, would regularly Necro for 12 or more, just because…

Farkas made short work of me…

The mistake: Being so afraid of something going wrong, that I don’t play the deck’s plan.
The lesson: If you’ve chosen your deck, you ought to have done so for good reason. Trust it, and play it
to win.

(Bonus lesson: As tournament organizer Steve Port would say, “It’s the STUFF rule. Don’t trust your friends to care about your stuff. Look after your own stuff. If you don’t, someone will take your stuff, and then it will become their stuff.”)

Grand Prix: Kansas City 1999 — Mark Gordon’s Fistful of Hate

Grand Prix: Kansas City was the first major event where I might have cumulatively tossed myself out of Top 8 of the event. Round after round, I did little things that turned a win into a draw or a draw into a loss. These weren’t in game errors, they were meta-errors, if you will.

They all were essentially the same: I didn’t call a judge when I should have. I let someone take something back. I was too nice. And it cost me.

After that event, I made a resolution to not be the same kind of nice guy. I’m still a guy that I think most opponents will tell you was “nice,” but I won’t let a player take back an error that they’ve made. These errors, after all, are what actually measure a win. I certainly make enough of them that give my opponents wins, and when they make those self-same errors, I’m entitled to my wins in return.

But there was one error in KC that was worse.

I was playing a well-known Pro (no longer active) in the last round of Day 1. If I win the round, I’m undefeated for the day. I’m playing SS High Tide (the Cabal Rogue build of High Tide), and he’s playing a Fish variant with Ophidians.

Time is running short. Very short. It’s game 3, and the clock is low, but I’m totally on the advantage here. He’s been taking a longer time than I like with his shuffles, in general, but nothing so slow that it is abusive. At some point in the game, I stop cutting him.

I tap him out with a Turnabout, which he Force of Wills a couple of times, before it sticks. I play the Time Spiral. He Force of Wills again, but I still manage to get it off. We shuffle up. I don’t cut. He Force of Wills twice to foil my attempt to kill him, and I’m forced to Spiral again. This set, he stops me going off with two Force of Wills, and even manages a Force of Will for my reset Spiral, but doesn’t have it for my “backup” Spiral. I cast Time Spiral all four times. He casts Force of Will in that total exchange, a total of twelve times. The game ends in a draw.

After the match, a spectator who I had just met says, “You know he was Thawing Tutoring, right?”

“What? What do you mean?”

“Every time he activated Thawing Glaciers, he used it like a Vampiric Tutor, and you weren’t cutting him.”

I sat there too stunned to speak for a moment, and then all of my friends freaked out at the spectator for not saying anything while it was happening. While I have no idea if things occurred like the spectator described, it certainly provides an alternate explanation to the situation than “great luck” on my opponent’s part. Regardless, I didn’t do what I should have been doing: watching my opponent, and cutting his deck.

The mistake: Trusting that my opponent would, by default, be honest.
The lesson: Pay attention to the board. Shuffle your opponent’s deck. Don’t give them the opportunity to cheat — they might take it.

U.S. Nationals 1999 — White Lightning FTW

In so many ways, this was a great tournament. I felt so absolutely incredibly prepared. We had a ton of great decks. Cabal Rogue had qualified a ton of people and friends. I knew the draft format. It was my weekend to shine.

In the end, there were two decks I was looking at. The Moa-Boa deck that was designed by Brian Kowal, Bill Macey (off Senor Stompy fame), and a bunch of the Milwaukee guys was my front-runner. It had the “White Lightning” Waylay trick in it (a secret trick, that someone was foolhardy enough to drop to the entire world), but Bill was pretty convinced that it actually shouldn’t have it. The other deck I had was Corrupter Black, the Mono-Black control deck that I would give to the Mogg Squad shortly after this tournament, that they would take two copies of into the Top 8. The only problem was that the Black deck, though good, didn’t have a sideboard, and I knew it.

I sat in the convention center with Brian Kowal and Seth Burn and several other friends and told them that I was just beginning to get too tired to figure out which deck to choose: the deck that might need to be changed by four cards, or the deck that didn’t have a sideboard yet and wasn’t as well tested. I knew I’d be happy to play either deck, so I asked if they could figure out which they thought would be the best, and hand me that deck in the morning.


Morning comes around, and they hand me a deck, but it isn’t Moa Boa and it isn’t Corrupter Black. It’s Ponza. Seth or Brian had managed to convince the other one that Ponza was the way to go, and so they scrapped everything and had built me that. They hadn’t bothered to figure out what I had asked them to.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to get together another deck, so I made some modifications, and went with it, doing pretty mediocre. At the time, I was pretty mad at them, but I shouldn’t have been.

I needed to take responsibility for the deck decision. Even if I was going to be foolish enough to hand off that responsibility to someone else, I was the one who didn’t leave myself the time to fix things if they got it wrong. This is the exact same thing as showing up to a tournament without any cards, and not having the person you were expecting to loan you the cards show up. You might be able to get things together, but it’s usually a far better idea to have at least most of the cards available before the event begins.

The mistake: Placing my fate entirely in the hands of others, especially since it isn’t their job to have that responsibility. In many ways, this is the intellectual version of Steve Port’s “Stuff” Rule.
The lesson: Allot yourself enough resources to make all of the decisions you’re going to need to make. You cannot count on anyone to have made those preparations for you.

U.S. Nationals 2001 — Fires Nats

In many ways, this was an incredibly heart-wrenching U.S. Nationals for me. I would finish a match out of Top 8, with three of my four losses being very troublesome. One loss would come from Casey McCarrell, against whom I would mulligan seven times in the course of our match, getting my only loss in the draft portion of the tournament. He would be eliminated in the Top 8 for stacking his opponents’ decks. The second frustrating loss would come from William Jensen, who legally (at the time) altered his decklist when we sat down for our first round of Standard in a Feature Match, putting in 4 Yavimaya Barbarians versus my Mono-Blue deck, Chevy Blue. My loss against Alex Borteh was incredibly fair — I knew I had lost the moment he cast turn 1 Merfolk of the Pearl Trident — with it being such a stacked matchup, there was little hope I could win. And then there was the game in the last round versus Jason Zila.

A win would put me into the Top 8 on solidly on breakers. I didn’t know it at the time, but a win for him wouldn’t get him in. My deck was incredibly good against Fires, but he had a weird build with both Terminates and Urza’s Rages. My draws were unspectacular, and he won. That’s how Magic goes sometimes: he had it, and I didn’t.

After the match, he came over to me and asked why I hadn’t told him I was a likely lock for the Top 8. “I didn’t have a chance. If I had known, I would have conceded to you.”

The mistake: Failing to pay attention to the standings.
The lesson: People at the Pro Tour are often
very willing to take a loss if it means someone will get significantly more prizes. If you don’t know that you have a bigger shot for more, how can you ever know whether or not to seek a concession or draw from someone? Conversely, if you are asked for a draw, not knowing can cause you to be “drawing dead”. (Har har.)

Grand Prix: Minneapolis 2001 — Cabal GP

This was a pretty great tournament for Cabal Rogue. We had two actual members in the Top 8, and an affiliate, Brian Davis, playing there as well. Davis was playing the same deck that I was, “Sunny D,” my White-based Domain deck.

The deck was pretty unfair. I look at it as one of those decks that just came together so beautifully, that you’ll always be proud of it. Davis had to work hard to not win games, and fully admits to having tossed the match to Wolf in the semis. I was doing the same thing much lower in the swiss, even though my deck usually refused to let me lose.

The twelfth round, versus Paul Thiessen, exemplifies the kind of hard work at losing I was doing. I went first, and my opponent Recoils my Forest on turn 3. I think hard before discarding Harrow. Then, I realize I simply could have cast the card.

The problem? I was so exhausted from the night before. I had spent most of the night foregoing sleep, and I walked around like a sleepwalker the entire tournament.

The mistake: Not getting enough sleep.
The lesson: If you’re actually going to hope to do well, at least try to be well rested enough to play properly.

Pro Tour: Kobe — The Non-Affinity Affinity Tournament

Pro Tour: Kobe was a strange tournament in some ways. Affinity was clearly the deck to beat, it was by far the most popular deck, and it was incredibly overpowered, and yet it wasn’t even represented in the finals of the event.

I had always kind of wished that the Pro Tour had come a month earlier. A month earlier, I felt like I was infinitely far ahead of where the metagame seemed to be from everyone I was talking to. A month later, and I felt like I was merely on par. My friend Adam Kugler had been working on Disciple-based Affinity before Ravager had even seen print. Working with Kugler and Ben Dempsey had gotten us to a place where we were pretty happy with the deck, but the sideboard was just murder.

I started talking with Zvi Mowshowitz about his sideboard for his “secret” Affinity deck. He made a claim that really took hold in me: players, he said, were overboarding their Affinity decks with a near-infinite barrage of cards for the mirror, but as a result, they were losing, simply because they ceased to be Affinity decks.

This made a lot of sense to me, and exploring this more in our testing seemed to bear this out. I was on a quest, then, for a decent sideboard that wouldn’t do this.

In the end, I failed to do it. My sideboard was god-awful, and I knew it was undertested, but I simply went with it. Bob Maher went with my main deck, which he said was good, but he largely jettisoned my sideboard for something that was, although strategically less clever, more sound. I, on the other hand, was completely destroyed. After losing my first round to Ben Rubin in the mirror (albeit with him having a decent sideboard), I played versus heavily skewed anti-Affinity deck after anti-Affinity deck. Alas.

(It’s funny, because after the whole thing was over, I finally figured out what I should have done. Did I say ‘alas’ yet?)

The mistake: Doggedly sticking to correct theory, even when practical means to explore that theory haven’t been found.
The lesson: Sometimes, we have to take the path that is less “smart” and just do what works. This is by far a better choice than to take the “smart” path that hasn’t been tested by the real world.

Pro Tour: Valencia — The Flood

And now, we’re back to the flood.

I said earlier that mistakes cost me my shot at Day 2. This, perhaps, is the most egregious of the two mistakes.

I was playing against Nicolay Potovin, playing a variant on the Chase Rares deck that would win the entire event. His version also included Psychatog, and this was a pretty common build that I’d seen around numerous places. I was playing a build of the Rock that had had great success in all of my testing against this archetype up to that point, and subsequently continues to.

In game 3, I keep a hand that goes from seemingly decent to terrible over the course of several turns. I knock him down to a lowly two life, when he stabilizes. I think that since my initial hand, I’ve had a string of draws that include either one or two non-land spells, and he’s simply drained me dry while my hand fills up with land. He has a Psychatog out, and I have out a Pernicious Deed and Destructive Flow, and he’s not going all in because of the Deed. My six land in play are matched by five land in my hand, but since he doesn’t know that, maybe I look intimidating to him… I’m not sure.

Finally, at long last, I draw a spell. It’s a blessed Ravenous Baloth! Thank goodness! I tap four lands, and drop it into play. When it resolves, I’m so elated, I pass the turn.

This, of course, leaves me with only two mana available. I realize my error immediately, but it’s too late. I’ve passed the turn. He attacks with his Psychatog immediately, and doing the math, I realize that if I don’t block, I’m dead. I block. If I had simply dropped the land, I could have actually blown the Deed for the win unless he did something impressive, or at the very least, I could have forced him to force me to blow the Deed.

The game doesn’t end there. My deck refuses to die. He finally does kill me, about 18 turns later, going all in with a Psychatog, emptying his graveyard and hand, with only 3 cards left in his library. The matchup was a good one, but not so good it could afford to turn a Baloth into Respite.

The mistake: Holding onto a bluff so long that you hold onto it longer than you should without thinking.
The lesson: Bluffing can be a great part of the game, but you
never want to hold a bluff in a way that reduces your options. As a game is progressing, make sure to not simply get locked into automatic — think about any bluffs you have running the same way you would about cards that you actually have in play or hand.

The mistake happens.
The lesson only happens if you pay enough attention.

Pay attention. This game is getting harder every day because people are simply getting better. Don’t fall behind because you don’t.

Good luck at your next tournament. (And a hearty congratulations to Pat, Sam, and Zvi. Or, congratulations and condolences, as Zvi prefers to be said.)

Adrian Sullivan