Four ninths and seven Top Sixteens ago, our forefathers set forth to write a mailbag piece. By that I mean that people asked me a bunch of questions and I personally picked and chose seemingly-random questions out of them to haphazardly answer, without ancestral assistance.
This is not that piece. However, this is exactly the same style of piece, but with different questions. I promise exactly as much haphazardly as before, so strap your seatbelt in and let’s begin.
Ethan Richardson – “How do you un-tilt?”
I stop leaning to the left or right and straighten my posture. I stop standing on a hill and move to flat ground. Those are the easiest ways to stop being tilted.
In terms of detilting in Magic, that’s something that is easier said than done. Sometimes the Gods of variance directly wrong you, and you want nothing more than to decry them from the highest mountaintop. Believe me, I know the feeling.
Here are a couple of tips for dealing with tilt:
1. It’s okay to be frustrated. There is this stigma that it’s unsporting to be upset over a loss. I think that’s silly. As long as you aren’t taking it out on your opponent or ruining their experience, it’s perfectly acceptable to be frustrated after losing. If I stopped getting frustrated after losses, then I’d probably start losing a lot more because it would mean I simply don’t care much anymore.
How does this help with tilt? Well, one of the easiest ways to tilt is to bottle up a bunch of anger and annoyance inside and let it eat away at you. If instead you are willing to let yourself get frustrated but get over it before the next round starts, you’ll be in a much better mental spot.
2. Keep things in perspective. One of the easiest ways for me to get over being on tilt is to step back and view the situation from more of a big-picture standpoint. So you missed your fourth land drop three times? How does that affect you in the grand scheme of things? Are you going to care about this a day from now? A week from now? An hour from now?
My life’s worth isn’t tied to my tournament success. If I have a bad tournament, it shouldn’t affect me or how I view myself. If I have a bad tournament, I can remember that there will always be more tournaments. I don’t need to prove myself to anyone. Keeping that game in perspective and reminding yourself how relatively insignificant it is in the grand scheme of your life (this has occasional exceptions) is a good way to get yourself back into a good state of mind.
3. Have self-confidence. Being confident in your abilities as a player is a great way to move past tilt. “It’s okay. I lost this round, but I know that I am capable of bouncing back from this loss.” Reminding yourself of something like that is a great way to get over it and start thinking about how you’re going to turn adversity into something positive. It’s extremely rare for someone to win a tournament without losing any matches. If you keep that in mind, it’s easier to swallow a loss. “What, did you think you would never lose in this tournament? Brush it off and rebound.”
Last weekend, at GP London, I lost my first two rounds of the tournament. My loss to Mono-Red Aggro in the first round was the worst pocket of variance that I can remember having in a very long time, potentially ever. My opening hand was Temple of Malady, Windswept Heath, Caves of Koilos, Anafenza, the Foremost, Hangarback Walker, Siege Rhino, Elspeth, Sun’s Champion.
I was on the play versus Mono-Red. My scry on turn revealed a Warden of the First Tree that I put on the bottom of my deck with the reasoning that if I make it to Siege Rhino I probably win, so I want to find lands.
I lost around turn seven or so. I still had those same three lands on the battlefield. I never drew that fourth land. My hand was Elspeth, Sorin, Sorin, Rhino, Rhino, Rhino, Rhino. Not only did I die with four Siege Rhinos and two Sorins in my hand while stuck on three lands, those were the only seven cards in my entire deck that cost more than three mana, meaning that every draw step I drew tied for the worst possible card I could draw in my deck for five turns in a row.
I lost round two in fairly similarly messed-up fashion to Jeskai when I couldn’t find a fourth land to play a Siege Rhino to finish a game off after keeping a three-land opening hand. Elspeth was punching my ticket to 0-2ville when I finally found land four.
At this point, I was pretty tilted. I had faced two good matchups and just simply hit a really bad patch of variance to brick off in both games threes to lose games I felt very likely to win. I felt like my Grand Prix was going to be over before it really got started, which was extra frustrating because of how long of a trip it was to London. I wanted to make the most of the trip, and here I was about to die in the fastest way possible.
Initially I was frustrated. I told all my friends the bad beat story I had just suffered. I just needed to vent and get it out. After that, I put things in perspective. It was just another tournament. Sometimes you lose and there is nothing you can do. There will always be more tournaments for me. At the very least, if I scrub out, I can go enjoy the city of London.
Lastly, I displayed some self-confidence. I knew that the Hangarback Abzan deck I was playing was very powerful. I knew that it was my style of deck and that I was capable of piloting the deck well as long as I was thinking clearly. I knew that if I was on top of my game and getting reasonable draws that I could easily win the rest of my rounds on Day One and make it into Day Two. But if I was dwelling on the previous rounds or still tilting off, then I would never make it through.
Going over these things helped me move on. I got over my tilt before the next round began.
I ended up winning seven straight rounds to go from 2-2 to 9-2 before finally suffering a third loss midway through Day Two. I ended up 11-4, earning a Pro Point and some cash. I attribute my willingness to work on overcoming my tilt from those frustrating first two losses to my success in this event. I could have easily just thrown in the towel and given up mentally, but I fought through the tilt and it ended up putting up a respectable finish.
Those three basic principles are my general go-to advice for overcoming tilt… and it is important to always make sure that you have gotten over any tilt before you start another round of Magic. Going into a round of Magic while still thinking about the prior round can be considered synonymous with signing the match slip in your opponent’s favor. When I’m on tilt, I specifically set aside as much time as I need to clear my mind before the next round and effectively drop everything else I could do instead to accomplish this. It’s important.
Casper Mulholland – “What’s the number one mistake aspiring competitive players make when building a sideboard?”
The most common mistake aspiring players make in sideboard construction is to fill their sideboard with random good cards.
Now, I’m not saying that you should put bad cards in your sideboard. What I’m saying, however, is that you should build your sideboard with a plan in mind. Quite frequently, I see sideboards that have three generic good cards against control, three generic good cards against fast aggro, three generic good cards against midrange decks and then some random silver bullet cards.
Those are not good sideboards. Instead of just putting good cards in your sideboard, you should come up with a sideboard plan for all of the matchups you expect to face, and then construct your sideboard to fit that plan. Just throwing good stuff in there leads to situations where you can end up having too many cards to sideboard in for certain matchups and not enough cards to sideboard in for other matchups. Maybe you should have six cards for aggro and zero cards for control. Maybe the three cards you have for control don’t come in for any other matchup, and you should find three different cards that are still good against control but are more versatile elsewhere.
I ran into this while testing Abzan Aggro for GP London. I had built a sideboard for the deck fairly haphazardly while testing on Magic Online. A few games in and I got paired against the Abzan Aggro mirror. I realized quickly that I didn’t have enough cards in my sideboard to bring in for the mirror match. I did, however, have a bunch of random good cards in my sideboard with no real purpose.
This led to me cutting two Drown in Sorrow and a Tragic Arrogance for two Self-Inflicted Wound and a Glare of Heresy in my sideboard going into the GP. That change ended up being great for me, as those cards did a lot of work and Abzan was a huge part of the field. If I had just entered the tournament with the “random good card” sideboard I originally had on Magic Online, I probably would have performed worse.
George Morgan – “What would you play in Standard, Modern, and Legacy, and why?”
In Standard, I would play the artist formerly known as Abzan Aggro, now known as Hangarback Abzan. It was a deck I worked on for GP London, and it ended up being a big part of the field and having a giant performance. It’s also a deck that isn’t hated on easily and will probably still be good.
In Modern, I would play Grixis Twin. I think you need to play a proactive deck that can just kill your opponent to thrive in Modern. Either that, or you play Jund. Grixis Twin is the best control deck in the format because it has a bunch of great control elements, but in matchups where those control elements don’t line up right or matter much you can still just kill them on turn four.
In Legacy, I would play Miracles because it’s the best deck, it’s fun, and it rewards you for deck and format familiarity. The better you know your deck and your opponent’s deck, the more your win percentage increases. This is true for every deck, but Miracles has a higher cap on how much it matters. Miracles played perfectly is the best deck in the format and Legacy is diverse enough that people can’t specifically hate on it.
Shannon Spriggs – “Has Magic being a source of income added or taken away from the game for you?”
The short answer is both. It’s added a lot. Making Magic a big part of my life has allowed me to travel around the world and meet hundreds and hundreds of awesome people, many of whom have become my friends. If Magic wasn’t my job or source of income, there’s no way I would have been able to travel as much as I do and there’s no way I would have been able to meet the kinds of people I’ve met. I’m constantly thankful that I’ve been given an opportunity to do this, and I wouldn’t trade it away.
It has also taken away from the game for me. I remember fondly the nostalgia of building decks from the random cards we owned and battling on the kitchen tables when I first started playing the game. I remember the discovery and joy I got in figuring out new things you could do in Magic. I remember in college the embarrassment I felt when I discovered how the stack worked and yelled out “I’m going to counterspell your counterspell on my counterspell” and then looked up as three beautiful women walked past my dorm room at exactly that moment and gave me a “What did we just see here?” look.
That innocence is gone. I can never go back to playing Magic that way. I’m never really going to get enjoyment out of casual Magic or the discovery of learning the game again. All things told, I’m pretty okay with that. The alternative is worth it to me.
Mason Meade – “How does Grixis Control beat G/R Tron?”
It doesn’t, which is why I would play Grixis Twin instead.
Chris Arnold – “If you could get a completely non-Magic/gaming-related corporate sponsorship for your Magic career, and completely ball out in their corporate brands and logos, which corporation would you sell out to?”
Hidden Valley Ranch. I want the phrase “Get Ranched!” with pictures of ranch dressing all over my body as I defeat opponents in Magic.
Alternatively, I think I could have a pretty solid working relationship with UPS. “What’s Brown doing for you?” easily turns into “What’s Braun-Duin for you?”
Steven Jessup – “What is overboarding? When is it right to board into answers for their answers in game two?”
Overboarding is a term used to describe a situation where you sideboard in so many reactive cards that you dilute your original strategy too much, to the point where it no longer functions smoothly. This is pretty much only an issue with combo decks where you need a bunch of different cards to do different things in order to win.
For example, Legacy Storm is a deck where it is very easy to overboard. If you side out too many ritual effects, you will never generate enough mana to perform your combo. If you side out too many card-drawing effects, you will never find the right pieces you need to go off. Oftentimes I see Storm decks that have Carpet of Flowers, Xantid Swarm, and Abrupt Decay all in their deck after sideboarding. It then becomes really difficult for them to successfully combo off in sideboarded games because they keep drawing too many copies of those cards that aren’t part of their combo.
That’s overboarding. In synergy decks, it’s important to keep your sideboarding to minimal, high-impact cards, and avoid boarding in or out too many cards. This can also sometimes happen with aggro decks where you side out too many creatures to bring in removal spells and then end up short on ways to kill your opponent.
As for the second part of the question, it’s basically always right to sideboard for how your opponent is going to sideboard. This doesn’t necessarily mean “answers for their answers” but this can oftentimes mean “different threats to handle the answers they will be sideboarding into.”
To give a good example of this in effect, let’s look at Abzan Aggro versus Mardu Midrange (before it turned into Mardu Dragons). The Mardu Midrange deck would often beat Abzan Aggro in game one with an aggressive curve of Seeker of the Way into Goblin Rabblemaster. After being beaten by those cards, I would still usually side out my Bile Blights immediately and bring in expensive planeswalkers. The reason is that most Mardu decks transitioned into a control deck after sideboarding and would cut their aggressive cards. By sideboarding to fight their sideboard plan, I would stay one step ahead of them. They would have Read the Bones and Anger of the Gods to out-control me, and I would have Abzan Charms and Elspeths to one-up them right back.
Eli Loveman – “Can we get a tale about a sick bluff or mind game?”
I once avoided a social interaction by pretending to be sick when I actually wasn’t. Everyone fell for my sick bluff.
Brad Brown – “What’s your thought process in determining a deck to play on any given week?”
I look for powerful cards that attack the metagame, and then I play whatever deck best fits those cards. For example, right after Pro Tour Magic Origins, Dromoka’s Command struck me as the most powerful card against the metagame of U/R Thopters and Mono-Red, as it is one of the highest-impact cards in the format against both of those decks. All four modes are relevant against both decks. After U/R Sphinx’s Tutelage won GP San Diego, it become even clearer how good Dromoka’s Command was.
The next step for me was finding the best Dromoka’s Command shell. For me, there were two options. Brian Kibler G/W Megamorph deck or Abzan Aggro. I felt that Abzan Aggro had a better curve and also had more powerful cards, which led me to play that.
Another factor was that Anafenza, the Foremost was also extremely well-positioned in the format. Anafenza shut down Hangarback Walker and the Rally the Ancestors deck. It was also a 4/4 body in a format where people were maindecking Searing Blood. With how prevalent Hangarback Walker was becoming, playing Anafenza was an easy call.
Brad Nelson does the same thing I do, except he takes it one step further. He realized how powerful Dromoka’s Command was in the format and expected everyone to shift toward playing it. He then shifted to the next logical step after that – playing Stormbreath Dragon, a card that is really good against Dromoka’s Command.
I prefer to not jump that many levels ahead but at the same time I respect that line of thinking, which is why I made sure that I had four Ultimate Prices in my 75 – I didn’t want to automatically lose to Stormbreath Dragons (spoiler alert: I did anyway).
Geoff Mullin – “Was your senior superlative most likely to finish just outside the money in everything you do?”
Actually, awkwardly enough, my senior superlative was me holding a $20 bill and had something to do with “being a future Fortune 500 CEO.” I was supposed to finish with lots of money. Something went wrong somewhere. I blame my crippling lack of ambition and motivation. Yeah. That’s probably it. Ninth place isn’t so bad, right?
Mason Lange – “How do you feel about bluffs/mind games/tricking your opponent in game? Do you think it’s a waste of time and energy or is it a worthwhile edge that you try to utilize?”
I think it’s mostly a waste of time and energy, but not always. I try to trick my opponent sometimes and it pretty much never works, which either means that I suck at it or that the only times I’m trying it is in desperation mode when nobody is going to fall for it. Your guess is as good as mine. The times that bluffing or mind games are most worth it are in really close games where you’re going to lose but your opponent doesn’t know that yet. If you can bluff a position of power, they might mess up.
My favorite bluffs aren’t actually really “bluffs” as much as they are calculated plays relying on your opponent to make a suboptimal play because they don’t have all of the information. Err, wait, maybe that’s what a bluff actually is. For example, I make a lot of aggressive attacks with Abzan Aggro where I’m just dead on the swing back if they don’t block. They usually do, though, because they’re scared that I have the Abzan Charm or Siege Rhino in hand to kill them if they take it all.
Pure bluffs aren’t easy to pull off, though, and you have to be good at it. I know that I’m not good at it, but I’m also good at sniffing through it most of the time. Sometimes my opponents try to oversell something to me and it’s obvious to me that they’re acting and not being genuine. In that case, they’re actually giving me information that I can use against them.
For example, if you start putting on a high school Shakespeare performance about how weak your opening hand is but then “decide to keep it anyway” I’m probably going to be able to figure out that you actually have the nuts but you want to undersell it. Or if you pass the turn with three mana open and one card in hand and you keep pushing those three lands forward so I can see that you’re representing Hero’s Downfall, I’m going to realize that you’re trying to tell me to play around Hero’s Downfall and I’m going to wonder why that might be. Perhaps you don’t have the card but are hoping I think you do? That’s the conclusion I would likely draw.
In general, though, I think if you’re investing a lot of mind power on trying to trick your opponent you’re missing out on spending that same mind power on just playing a tight game of Magic and winning that way. Usually when I notice my opponent going out of their way to try that stuff on me, it gives away that they aren’t coming from a position of power. If they were confident in their hand, their deck, or their play skill, they wouldn’t be wasting effort trying to trick me into making mistakes. They’d just be playing tight Magic and beating the crap out of me anyway.
Anytime I realize that my opponent is doing that, I conclude that they are probably scared of me and are trying to find weird ways to get advantages as a result. That just boosts my confidence and gives me a huge edge over them. There’s nothing worse than trying to mind game someone who knows you’re doing it and is one step ahead.
Nick Peternell – “Is it better to play the best deck or the deck that beats the best deck?”
Play the best deck, most of the time. Magic players aren’t logic machines. If Magic players were cold, calculating pieces of metal with no regard for cost, fun, or any other considerations, then there might be some merit to playing the deck that beats the best deck. Because in that cold, heartless, emotionless world, most Magic players would be playing the best deck and it’s possible that the deck that beats the best deck would then become the best deck because of how many people were playing the Level One strategy.
We don’t live in that world. A deck might be the best deck by a huge margin and still only 20-30% of people in the tournament are going to be playing that deck at most. That means that 70-80% of people are just stone wrong and playing a suboptimal deck. Even then, I can’t blame those people. People play Magic to brew, to have fun, to experiment, etc. Not everyone gets a cheesy grin seeing Bloodbraid Elf cascading yet again into Tarmogoyf.
If you play a deck to beat the best deck, you might go eight rounds and only play the best deck one time. I’d rather just play the most powerful strategy so that I can beat the random brews that people bring to the tournament and also have game against other top decks.
There’s also a problem where people think that their deck beats the best deck but it turns out that it actually doesn’t. “My deck beats Caw-Blade” was actually a running joke during the Standard format where Caw-Blade was dominant. The reason is that everyone thought their deck was good against Caw-Blade, but in fact they were all wrong. Caw-Blade was one of the best Standard decks of all time and was winning every tournament. I can’t tell you how many times people told me, “Man I can’t believe I just lost to Caw-Blade. It’s such a good matchup for me.” Playing five games in testing against your buddy who is inexperienced with Caw-Blade is not enough to declare the matchup “good.”
The moral of the story here is that it’s rarely wrong to just play the best deck, even if people know about it, and trying to beat the best deck is usually the wrong way to go about it. Make other people have to “have it” to beat you, don’t try to be the one hoping to “have it” against them.
Matt Ling – “Why don’t you stream?”
I get asked this a lot, actually. The main reason is that I consider streaming work. To stream, I have to explain my thought processes and interact with the audience. I have to set aside a chunk of time and my top priority during that period of time is to entertain an audience. When I play games like Magic Online I like to relax and enjoy myself and I also like to get in solid testing. I feel like streaming takes away from both of those things. I have to be “on” while streaming. I can’t just lay there lazily on my bed and alt-tab to look at pictures of cats when my opponents are in the tank. I also find talking to an audience distracts from playing tightly and discovering new lines or play or how I could have played better when looking back at a game.
I’d like to stream in the future, but as of now, I’m pretty content not streaming and just focusing on testing in the fashion I’m currently doing it. I’m also considering starting to stream Hearthstone, as I’m a lot more relaxed about playing Hearthstone than playing Magic Online (which is usually testing for tournaments), and therefore I wouldn’t care as much about the streaming part of things taking away from my concentration.
Reuben Bresler – “Which do you prefer: trying to ‘break’ formats with unknown archetypes early or trying to ‘tweak’ established archetypes later?”
I prefer trying to break formats with unknown archetypes early. I think that is the most satisfying thing one can do in Magic: completely destroy a tournament with a deck of your own design that nobody else saw coming.
With that being said, I’m not very good at doing that. I’m much better at tweaking established archetypes later. I had a lot of success in 2013 by tweaking Junk Reanimator over and over again over a six-month period. I’ve had a lot of success this year doing the same with Abzan Aggro. I’m not reinventing the wheel, I’m just finding the right axle to affix to that wheel in order to drive over the metagame.
Having learned that I’m a much better tweaker than builder, I’ve come to kind of embrace that role more and more. When looking at formats, I’m less and less inclined to brew up new decks these days and more and more inclined to try to take existing decks and make them a lot better.
Aaron – “Do you shuffle your sideboard into library and think it makes a difference versus any extra time it takes?”
I don’t do this. I think talking from a strictly optimal perspective, you should do this after every single game you play. It hides the most information.
However, I don’t for a very simple reason. I mess things up when I try to do this. I get caught with things in my deck that aren’t supposed to be there because I messed up when trying to sideboard. To me it is a giant hassle, a time waste, and I mess up a lot when I do it. So I don’t do it anymore. My opponents might be able to glean a small bit of information, but I’m okay with that.
There is one thing I do. When going from game two to game three, I will often grab two to three cards from my sideboard, shuffle them into my deck, and then think for a few seconds while flipping through my deck and then take those same two to three cards right back out. This makes it look like I’m reevaluating my sideboarding for game three and my opponent might not put complete faith in the cards they saw in game two.
Frequently, I also just change how I sideboard whether I’m on the play or draw. Dromoka’s Command, for example, is a much better card on the play in a Fleecemane Lion deck. I usually have more of these in my deck on the play than draw.
Griffin Lussier – “Which well-known Magic Pro that gets a lot of high praise is actually a complete fish?”
John – “Do you think Magic should introduce a way to interact with planeswalker emblems?”
No, I don’t. I think that would add too much needless complexity. I already dislike cards like Pull from Eternity or Riftsweeper for messing with exiled cards. I’m fine with Emblems being untouchable. From a flavor perspective, it feels like if a planeswalker sat around for a long time and you didn’t do anything to disrupt them, you deserve what you get.
Ben Cottee – “How does it feel when your deck dominates a GP but you weren’t the one crushing it?”
Bittersweet. This has happened a lot lately. I keep finding friends or other people I know doing well in tournaments with my deck while I flop my way through a minimum-cash finish. It’s a tough pill to swallow sometimes. I want to succeed and it can suck to know that you built a deck well enough to succeed with it but that someone else gets the glory and prize instead of you.
On the other hand, it’s a nice feeling to know that you’re on the right track and that you have a good handle on what is good in that particular format. There is also satisfaction in seeing friends and teammates succeed, since their success is necessary for them to continue being your teammates.
Lastly, I have also done well in tournaments with other people’s decks enough times to realize that it can and does easily go both ways. If you keep working hard and building good decks, eventually success will come.
Alright, well that’s all I’ve got. There were a lot of other great questions, but this is already getting pretty long. I definitely wish I could have answered more questions, including a number of the obvious troll questions. Don’t feed the trolls? What’s the fun in that? I did want to keep things at least semi-serious, though. I never go full serious, but I’m willing to go semi-serious from time to time. Hopefully this article was enlightening.
If you have more questions, feel free to shoot them to me and I’ll try to answer them as briefly and unsatisfactorily as I can. And I think we all know how good I am at that. I’m probably the ninth-best person at doing that on this website, and that’s the kind of disgusting self-endorsement you can’t get anywhere else.