“Why? Not again?” I asked with as much disdain in my voice as I possibly could.
Like some kind of caricature of an overpowering Russian ballet teacher, my friend John would run me through the same drills over and over again. I was the
worst kind of Magic player: one who thought he was good, but was quite poor. I talk about John a lot, because without him I would have almost absolutely no
success playing this game.
One summer, all we did was play Magic. We both often reflect on it as probably the best time of our lives, but we had no responsibility, good jobs, and
best of all I lived with my parents still (a luxury I miss). The entire season consisted of John coming over my house every day, eating lunch, and playing
Magic for hours and hours on end. Rinse and repeat. It was the best of times.
I was one of those petulant types that would somehow get pissed off in testing when I lost. It was just testing! I would lose and complain about it, and
John would roll his eyes and then beat me again. I’d whine, and he’d beat me again. Again we would rinse and repeat.
Eventually, like any good parent, John decided to take a more stern approach. Whenever I made a mistake in a game- an apparent one- the game was over. I’d
scoop them up. I lost. He’d make a tally on the paper how many games he won and how many I “punted.”
Play the wrong land on turn 1? You lose.
Sequence your spells incorrectly? You lose.
Make the wrong blocks? You lose.
It wouldn’t just stop there. If I thought John’s assessments were wrong, I’d argue against them. He’d explain why I was incorrect. 99% of the time I was
the one who had screwed it up, and he was right. Womp Womp.
My argument was usually the same: “I thought it was the right play.”
Eventually, when he’d break down the gamestate, I’d see that he wasn’t wrong. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. It took a while, but it eventually
clicked that I needed to see the difference between playing “right” and playing “well.”
How many times have you heard that? How many times have you said that?
“I thought I was right.”
Think about it for a moment.
Now we’re ready to begin.
Players get caught up in buzzwords, phrases, and trends.
After a match I had with Gerry Thompson at Grand Prix Miami during the Super Sunday Series with him piloting R/W Aggro against me playing Mardu, we
discussed Goblin Rabblemaster, and it helped change how I view the concept of what is “right.”
With the configuration of our sideboard it was correct in almost all matches for me to sideboard out Goblin Rabblemaster on the draw. Against R/W, we
brought in cards like Anger the Gods to battle their tokens and smaller creatures, Ashcloud Phoenix to combat Stormbreath Dragon, and Erase to take out
their Outpost Sieges and Chained to the Rocks. I was able to cripple his Seeker of the Way into Goblin Rabblemaster with a turn 3 Anger the Gods, and then
beat him with Ashcloud Phoenixes. He joked about the “nombo” of Anger and Ashcloud, but I replied that I took out Rabblemaster and a few other smaller
creatures to complement the strategy. I said something along the lines of “it’s almost always right to take out Rabblemaster.”
He gave a pretty impressive rebuttal of how he almost never takes the card out, and that he thinks it’s just something players read and think that because
a player of notoriety said it, it must be true. He would win games because he had Rabblemaster and other players didn’t.
This opened up a Pandora’s Box for me about how to deal with common circumstances that have become automatic.
These plays feel right because we’ve heard about how to handle them so many times that we believe them to be the gospel.
Scenario #1: You have a Satyr Wayfinder in play and your Abzan Aggro opponent attacks with a Fleecemane Lion. Having filled your graveyard, given you a
land, and now providing you a blocker, you throw it in front of the Lion.
At your local level, you’ve seen this play a thousand times. Saving yourself three damage from a Fleecemane Lion may seem like the kneejerk play, but there
might be a much bigger endgame at stake. Let’s examine the second part of that scenario.
After blocking, your opponent plays a Rakshasa Deathdealer.
The Deathdealer represents a much greater threat. Where a Lion will be three consistent damage, the Deathdealer can be pumped to extremes and close out the
game much faster. It was very difficult for me to understand the logic of “I will save this blocker to prevent more damage down the line,” but it became a
much clearer concept when I started practicing it. I might take nine damage over three turns from that Lion, but on a critical turn I could prevent six to
ten damage from that Deathdealer. This gives you something very valuable: time.
Sometimes just blocking early for the sake of preventing paltry damage might seem right, but is it indicative of the right play?
Scenario #2: Your opponent has a Courser of Kruphix in play. You wait until their draw step, see what rests on top, and then fire off that Dramoka’s
Command to kill it and put a +1+1 counter on your Deathmist Raptor.
On streams, coverage, or whatever tournament you may be at this play is as common as can be. But it’s not always the right one.
At the time of having Courser in play, we know what the top card of their library is. We’re operating on better-than-average information. With a Raptor in
play, a Command in hand, and a Courser facing off against us, the common play is “attack with Raptor, Command after draw step.” We are conditioned to
believe this is how best to deal with Courser of Kruphix.
In this position it would be more beneficial to cast the Dramoka’s Command prior to your attack step. You’re killing the Courser, you know what they are
drawing, and you’re dealing four damage instead of three. Now you have removed your opponent knowing what the top card of their deck is which gives them
more insight into what spell they should cast, and you are in a better position.
Scenario #3: You’re playing the Esper Dragons mirror. Your hand has a Thoughtseize in it, and you’re on the play. You play your Dismal Backwater first.
After the opponent plays a Polluted Delta, you cast your Thoughtseize. Their hand is very unexciting, with two copies of Dragonlord Ojutai, four lands-
one of which is a Haven of the Spirit Dragon, and an Ugin. You take one of the Ojutai, and then drop a Temple of Deceit and scry.
Casting your turn 2 Thoughtseize and following that play with a Temple gives you a few dimensions of information: You get to see their hand and then either
know what card you’re drawing or ship something unwanted to the bottom. You’re operating on far better information than your opponent is, and you should be
in a much better position to take the game with how bad their hand is.
But is that even the right play?
Let’s assume that Thoughtseize was the only hand disruption spell you had, so you won’t be following it up with anything else to strip a spell from their
hand. The problem with casting that early Thoughtseize is that now you are at the mercy of their draw steps. In a matchup that’s all about positioning and
jockeying to have your powerful cards stick, Thoughtseize is one of the most important cards. Casting it on the turn you plan to have your own Dragonlord
Ojutai resolve or make sure it’s safe is going to be extremely important to winning, so why wouldn’t you want to maximize the potential?
If their hand is powerful and they Thoughtseize you first and see yours and they take it, what will they do about your Silumgar’s Scorn and Dissolves; your
Dragonlord’s Prerogative or Digs just sitting in your hand? Maybe they take your Thoughtseize instead to protect their own hand. Regardless, I’ve found
that unless you’re the kind of deck that can get away with pressuring an opponent quickly, jamming that Thoughtseize as early as you can might actually be
a huge detriment to your gameplan and could keep your more important spells from landing.
Scenario #4: You read an article talking about the power of Mardu Dragons, and it dissuades you from playing Abzan Aggro.
Right now, I think not playing Abzan Aggro is failing to give yourself the best chance to win.
As an amendment to my article from last week, I think Jon Snow learned that
Abzan Aggro is the best deck in the format. If you want to do well wherever you are, dedicate your time to testing it.
Kidding aside, one thing I believe we all can learn going forward is to shed the notions of what we believe to be the right plays and lines based on
previous experiences. Playing well means shifting your thought process and removing the conflicts from how you judge a situation. Thinking quickly on your
feet and thinking ahead multiple turns is one of the greatest keys to victory.
It took me a very long time to learn the differences between playing right and playing well. Playing “right” gave me notions of entitlement because I
thought I had all the answers.
Playing well got me here.
Sometimes it’s better to not be right.