The Beautiful Struggle – Blunderful

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It’s a simple question, but only the simple-minded would give a simple response: why do we blunder? Clearly, “because we’re terrible” is not the answer. Even Pro Tour champions can overlook the trivial aspects of the game: Gary Wise famously punted a Worship lock by sacrificing a Wooded Foothills at 1 life, and more recently Gadiel Szleifer lost a winning position against Mark Herberholz at Grand Prix: Montreal by forgetting to pay for Slaughter Pact.

It’s a simple question, but only the simple-minded would give a simple response: why do we blunder?

Clearly, “because we’re terrible” is not the answer. Even Pro Tour champions can overlook the trivial aspects of the game: Gary Wise famously punted a Worship lock by sacrificing a Wooded Foothills at 1 life, and more recently Gadiel Szleifer lost a winning position against Mark Herberholz at Grand Prix: Montreal by forgetting to pay for Slaughter Pact. Of course, if one is a bad player, one may be more likely to blunder, but the level of play skill that one possesses does not explain why the talented player blunders anyway.

As you might imagine, I got started thinking about this topic as a result of a horrible blunder on my own part at the PTQ last weekend. For reference, here’s the list I was playing:

4 Brine Elemental
4 Vesuvan Shapeshifter
4 Riftwing Cloudskate
3 Venser, Shaper Savant
2 Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir
2 Willbender
4 Ancestral Vision
3 Cancel
4 Delay
2 Pongify
4 Desert
3 Dreadship Reef
2 Calciform Pools
2 Urza’s Factory
+ Lands

4 Aeon Chronicler
1 Cancel
1 Willbender
2 Pongify
4 Snapback
3 Spell Burst

I basically took the deck Kenji Tsumura talked about on Monday, which Josh Ravitz had piloted to a Top 2 finish at Neutral Ground a couple of weeks ago. I made some modifications designed to beat the mirror, which I was expecting a lot of after Ravitz’s finish. This is why Pongify is in the maindeck instead of Snapback, because bouncing opposing creatures rarely accomplishes much in the mirror. I gambled that I wouldn’t see a lot of Scryb Ranger or the Virulent Sliver deck, and cut the Serrated Arrows from the sideboard altogether.

However, Julian Levin keyed me in to some even better tech in the mirror: Errant Ephemeron, which comes in for the Brine Elementals (you don’t usually want a face-up Elemental in the mirror, because the opponent’s Vesuvan Shapeshifters can copy it and lock you out). If I had to do it over again, I’d probably have three Aeon Chroniclers and four Ephemerons in my board instead of the four Chroniclers and three Spell Bursts.

However, this article isn’t about what I would do if I had a second chance, it’s about what I did with my first chance. I lost the first round to a R/W/U deck; that round was kind of strategically interesting in itself, but it’s not really germane to our topic.

Thus dumped in the 0-1 bracket, I faced a mirror match in round 2. I lost game 1 after my opponent drew two storage lands and two Ancestral Visions; I drew none of either and no Willbender to hose the Ancestral draw. In game 2 I drew more storage lands and surprised my opponent by leaving in one Brine Elemental; it flipped at a key moment to force the win.

We started game 3 with about ten minutes left, and a draw being a virtual disaster for both of us. I utterly blew out my opponent by suspending a Riftwing on turn 2, and then using Venser to bounce a Calciform Pools when he tapped out to put a second counter on it. Later he had a Venser to nail my Venser, so I beat down for 2 for some time with the Riftwing. Eventually, I tried to end the game with a large Chronicler suspend when he appeared to be low on gas. He was, and he sounded resigned to losing the game as I drew two cards per turn for a few turns.

It seemed like I had the game well in hand, but it turned out that time was called and neither of us understood — I had heard it, but I thought the judge had said we had five minutes, not five turns. So, it turned out that I was going to have to kill my opponent either on the turn the Chronicler came in (turn 2 of the five-turn clock) or the next turn (turn 4 of the five-turn clock). Failure to do so would mean a draw, since he hadn’t done a point of damage to me and had no shot of winning.

On turn 1, my opponent threw down Teferi on an empty board, with a gesture that sort of seemed to say, “Here goes nothing!” I had a Cancel, two Vesuvan Shapeshifters, a Teferi of my own, and a land or two in hand; my opponent had one card left. He still had enough mana up to Cancel my Cancel, or to Venser my Chronicler if I could get it into play. I thought I might need the Cancel just in case his last card was another blocker or some other kind of ace in the hole. So, I decided my best move was to let the Chronicler’s card draw happen, then, with the “play this card when the last counter is removed” trigger on the stack, play a Teferi of my own and destroy his Teferi due to the legend rule. Then my Chronicler would come in as a 5/5, and together with my Cloudskate, it would kill him from 5. I sat on my Cancel and let his Teferi resolve.


Three or four people were watching the match. All of them, as well as my opponent, and probably all of you reading this, could see that this plan is moronic. I cannot play Teferi during my upkeep because I can’t play anything during my upkeep; my opponent has Teferi in play! I felt like the world’s biggest moron when four different people snapped at once, “Sorcery speed!” when I moved to play the Teferi.

This type of blunder occurs often in chess, where it is known as a blind spot. Even in chess, a game where you have perfect information about your opponent’s position and all possible opposing moves can be foreseen, it is possible for a very strong player to occasionally miss that an obvious move might leave a piece hanging or allow mate in one. Famed Russian chess trainer Mark Dvoretsky explained the concept in one of his books with a Russian proverb: “Even the sun has spots.”

This particular blind spot shouldn’t be too hard to understand. Teferi is awesome! He’s the key to the matchup. He does everything. He’s Mother Teresa. He’s Elvis. He’s God. So when playing this deck online, I often find myself remembering that I can’t play instants, or Venser, during my opponent’s turn. Then I’ll go and make a plan that involves playing Teferi at instant speed anyway. I often fall into the trap of thinking that Teferi is so awesome that he should be invulnerable to an opposing copy of himself.

Avoiding blind spots is actually kind of difficult. After all, most of the time you do know about the rule or trick you are blind to. It’s the one time that it falls into your blind spot that tends to bite you in the ass. The best advice I can offer is to double-check yourself when you are at or near a critical point in the game. Step back from the plan you might be making, and ask yourself if you are missing anything.

As you might imagine, I was a little shook up from this turn of events. So, I played a Teferi main-phase to kill his own, attacked him down to three with my Cloudskate, and… passed the turn?

He’s at 3, I have a lone two-power guy in play, and I passed the turn? Obviously I was not able to kill him on my next turn, and we drew.

Mike McGee, who was over my shoulder during the last few turns of the game, was aghast. “You could have just won there!” he told me. He pointed out that if I had morphed a Shapeshifter, I would most likely have won next turn. I could have either played the final Shapeshifter copying a Cloudskate to bounce whatever blocker he could come up with, or turned my existing Shapeshifter face up to give it flying, and attacked for the win either way. If my opponent had any action that could stand up to that line of play, he probably would have already tried to run it out there; so it’s pretty likely I would have won. Ironically, the Cancel I had saved from my earlier mistake would have been likely to seal up the win for me.

This is typical of many games: problems can compound themselves. You see it in poker tournaments: many times someone with a huge stack will lose a large hand, cutting him in half, and then immediately lose the rest a hand or two later. You see it in chess… one mistake will make someone’s position poor but still salvageable. It’s only during the effort to recover from the first mistake that an even bigger mistake leads to immediate loss. Many other games go exactly the same way.

There is a psychological aspect to all of these games we play, whether we be casual players or gravy train regulars. So, it’s inevitable that we’ll find ourselves in one of these “mistake avalanches” from time to time. Sometimes the first mistake is just so buffoonish — such as my Teferi blunder in the example game — that we just can help but fall down the slippery slope. It was pretty much that way during my game: after doing something dumb, I was determined not to do anything else equally dumb during my turn, so I did nothing. It turned out that doing nothing was even dumber.

However, with the right amount of discipline, even these sorts of ugly events can be avoided. It’s not rocket science: when you realize your first mistake, you just have to get past it. Of course, that’s never easy to do, especially if your first blunder has cost you an easy win or something like that. You have to clear your mind of your previous foolishness and look at the position anew, as though someone had presented it to you as some kind of “find the right play” puzzle. You have to remember that the game could still be salvaged, even if the previous mistake has made that task a lot tougher.

Of course, there are all things I failed to do during the match. I looked over at McGee and said, “God, I’m the worst.” His straightforward response: “Yeah.” That’s the thing about blunders: they are not made only by terrible players, but it’s pretty hard to avoid the “terrible” label after you’ve made one.

Anyway, by the time you read this I’ll most likely be trying to grind in to U.S. Nationals in Baltimore, Maryland. Let’s hope that I avoid the blunders today. Wish me luck.

I’ll also be taking the next two weeks off, to satisfy some grad school commitments. Barring some kind of spectacular and article-worthy Nationals experience, I’ll be back on August 16. Enjoy your summer.

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