The Dragonmaster’s Lair – Improvement Through Reflection

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Friday, April 9th – By his own standards, Brian Kibler’s season hasn’t been stellar thus far. With only four Pro Tour points gained at this stage, he’s in a reflective mood. Looking back at his performances and tournaments, he suggests reasons why things haven’t been as good as he’d hoped. Do the same reasons apply to you? Read on to find out!

My plan for this week was to write a report on my finish at Grand Prix: Houston, but I decided that my 3-3 performance wasn’t really worth chronicling, and with the Extended season coming to an end, no one is terribly interested in what I played and why. Instead, I’m going to take a look at my season so far and talk about some of the lessons that I’ve learned.

My results so far this year have been disappointing, to say the least. Between Pro Tour: San Diego and four Grand Prix events, I have a grand total of four Pro Tour points. Since I’m guaranteed a minimum of two points for showing up to a Pro Tour, that means I’ve essentially earned only two points in five tournaments — not too impressive now, is it?

Still, none of my results have been shockingly terrible. In San Diego, Oakland, and Houston, I was one win away from making Day 2, and in Yokohama I made Day 2 and was one win out of the money. When you’re losing spectacularly, it can often be easy to identify where you went wrong, but when your results are coming up just short it can be harder to figure out why.

One component has certainly been preparation. My preparation for events hasn’t been nearly as effective this season as it was last year. I didn’t test much for any of the Grand Prix events I played in and certainly didn’t devote enough time to trying to actually build new decks for any of them. In Oakland, Yokohama, and Houston, I just played Zoo, which, while a fine deck, probably wasn’t the best I could have done if I had devoted more time to testing and trying out new ideas. I entertained the possibility of playing other decks, like various Smallpox builds, but ultimately abandoned them when their power level just didn’t feel up to snuff. I never made a serious effort to brew up anything truly new, nor to learn to play any of the other top decks in the format. I stuck with Wild Nacatls because I was comfortable with them, and felt like the deck was “good enough”.

The problem is that “good enough” isn’t really where you want to be if your goal is to win tournaments. I was going into all of these events playing a deck that was certainly powerful, but was definitely on everyone’s radar. It was a deck people consistently underestimate, for sure – hell, I had to argue with Patrick Chapin to convince him that he really needed Deathmarks in the sideboard of his Grixis Control deck — but not one that is inherently unfair. I certainly didn’t have any especially exciting innovations to give me an edge, either. My deck had pretty much exactly what all of my opponents would expect me to have, which meant that they were able to play as closely to perfect against me as possible.

This relates to an interesting conversation I had with Patrick Chapin at the Grand Prix. We were talking about the impact of having perfect information about the opposing decklist in playtesting when that is far from the case in live tournaments. Specifically, he felt like his playtesting results with his Grixis deck had been skewed in two different ways by his testing. First, he felt like he had overestimated the effectiveness of his deck against aggressive strategies because in testing he always knew what to play around, when in the actual tournament he wouldn’t know exactly what version of Zoo he was up against, and secondly that he had underestimated his matchup against combo decks, because in the tournament his opponents wouldn’t know what to play around and he could easily catch them off guard with an unexpected Countersquall or something similar.

The point of this segue is that sometimes playtest results can be deceiving, and that there is often more value in playing an unexpected deck — or even just unexpected cards — than raw numbers can tell you. I have personally had my most success when playing decks that were off the radar and can point to specific instances in many of those events when I won games off of the surprise value of my cards. From Mike Flores‘ favorite story of when I beat Jon Finkel with Armageddon out of the sideboard of my Buried Alive deck back at Nationals in 1997 to destroying Rebel players with Tsabo’s Decree out of Red Zone in 2000 all the way up to winning the Zoo mirror with Baneslayer Angel and Punishing Fire in Austin, I have made a career out of straying from the beaten path. In recent months, I haven’t put in the work necessary to find those hidden gems that brought me success in the past, and my finishes have suffered as a result.

Another factor contributing to my lack of success has been a failure to keep myself in proper playing shape for tournaments this season. I went on at length in my Seven Habits article about the importance of proper rest, exercise, and nutrition, and I’m guilty of going against my own advice. I learned the hard way going to Kuala Lumpur and Japan to pay better attention to my travel schedules, since at both of those events I flew in overnight on Thursday, which left me even more wrecked by tournament time than I would have been with jet lag alone. Even in Houston I had difficulty sleeping, a problem that I attribute to never giving my body a chance to get back on a proper schedule once I was back from my trip to Asia.

Magic is a hard game, and Magic tournaments are grueling affairs. If you’re going to far as to fly around to world to compete in them, it’s foolish to set yourself up for failure by letting yourself play at anything but your sharpest. I haven’t been doing that lately, and it shows. My failings haven’t been so glaringly obvious as they were at Nationals when I decided to go out partying before day two because I was frustrated with my day one record, but they have certainly still cost me. I can point to at least one match in every tournament that I have played this year that I feel like I might have won with tighter play, and in every one of those matches I feel like fatigue was a major factor in my mistakes. Given that in each of those tournaments one win would have either earned me money or seen me through to Day 2, that’s a big deal.

The last factor in my results, I think, is just not playing enough Magic. My usual partner in crime Ben Rubin doesn’t test outside of Pro Tours, which leaves me without a regular playtest buddy when it comes to Grand Prix. Both Zvi and Ben Lundquist have argued lately that focusing on a single deck leading up to an event is the way to get the best results, but I disagree. I think more important than knowing the ins and outs of your own deck is understanding the format at large. Playing games with as much of the field as possible is just good policy, since you learn how each matchup plays from both sides of the ball. It is only through knowing how the different major decks in the format works that you can really build decks to beat them, or know whether a last minute audible to a new deck is a reasonable choice, and knowledge of how decks tick translates directly into knowing how to beat them.

What does all this mean? Well, as I posted on Twitter on Saturday during GP: Houston, I’m sick of not winning and I decided not to do it anymore. I’ve identified the factors that have contributed to my not-winning and I’m going to do my best to remedy them. Here’s how:

First and most importantly is that I’m going to make a major investment in Magic Online. I think Magic Online is perhaps the best tool around for testing for Grand Prix events, since it evolves quickly enough to mirror the metagame in the real world. Pro Tours nowadays tend to occur too soon after the release of a new set for Magic Online to be a viable testing ground and the value of protecting tech is much higher, so playing decks on Magic Online is generally a no-no. Thankfully I have a solid playtest group for those already and don’t have to rely on MTGO for my gaming. That being said, Magic Online can be a great opportunity to get a grasp of the format before doing serious brewing. Brad Nelson credits his 9th place finish last year in Honolulu to his familiarity with Block from playing Magic Online, and much of that to playing the Block queues even before Alara Reborn was legal. There’s a lot to be said for just being familiar with how cards work. As I said before — just playing more Magic is valuable, even if you don’t end up playing the decks involved.

Second, I’m going to better position myself to be in the proper mental state to succeed at events. This means getting myself adjusted to the sleep schedule I need to be on for the tournament well in advance, and paying close attention to my travel plans to ensure that I don’t hamstring myself by taking a red eye in the night before the event. I had a great time on my trip to Asia, but I wasn’t nearly as successful in the actual tournaments there as I needed to be to justify traveling halfway around the world. Even just little changes, like ensuring that I don’t end up rooming with someone whose snoring might disrupt my sleep, can make all the difference.

Finally, I’m going to get back to my roots and do some serious brewing any time I plan on playing in a tournament. Wild Nacatl is a good man, but I leaned on him too heavily this past Extended season. Playing more on Magic Online should help with this, since it will give me a chance to try out new ideas in a competitive environment much more easily. I’ll certainly need to come up with some kind of incognito Magic Online name to test my new brews, though. I think “Kibler” might be just a little bit too obvious.

If your Magic results aren’t quite up there with what you expect from yourself, I suggest you try to take a step back and figure out just why that might be. There’s no way to improve in this game except through taking an honest accounting of what you’re doing wrong, and sometimes your mistakes have nothing to do with playing the game itself. Hopefully the changes I’m making will turn things around for the rest of the season. I may only have four PT points right now, but this time last year I had zero, so there’s still hope.

Until next time…