The Magic Jerk – Nosce Te Ipsum

The most interesting matches of my season so far came back to back at last week’s PTQ in Milford. I was playing Aluren, and my first opponent was Jonathan Ward of Team MYR. We were both 3-0 at this point and he begins the game with something like Duress, Birds of Paradise, Cabal Therapy and I assume he’s playing Rock, so I Cabal Therapy him back on Vampiric Tutor. He shows me a hand of Worship, and Academy Rector. What the hell? If your PTQ season has gone at all like mine, I’m sure you’ve had more than a few of these strange moments and can share my pain.

There’s something about being on the road every weekend, cramped, dog-tired, eyes bloodshot and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee sloshing in your lap that makes you wonder why in the world you actually play Magic.

Putting words to a page lately is like pulling my teeth out with a dull spoon. I’ve been reading comics, playing Magic, taking the semester off school (almost), rotting away in the office each day, and suddenly I’ve lost the feeling that I have much to tell the SCG community. I mean I’ve hit almost every PTQ and the season’s opening Grand Prix, and gone something like 3-3 (GP, with Goblins), 2-2 (1st PTQ with Aluren), 5-2, 4-2, 6-1-1 (3rd), 3-2-1. That’s not exactly the record of someone you want to listen to, or at least, it’s not someone I’d want to listen to. Still, I’m a writer now, so if you’re not listening and I’m still writing at least I’m keeping up my end of the bargain.

The most interesting matches of my season so far came back to back at last week’s PTQ in Milford. I was playing Aluren, and my first opponent was Jonathan Ward of Team MYR. We were both 3-0 at this point and he begins the game with something like Duress, Birds of Paradise, Cabal Therapy and I assume he’s with Rock, so I Cabal Therapy him back on Vampiric Tutor. He shows me a hand of Worship, and Academy Rector.

At this point I’m basically dumbfounded. I figure hopefully I can just win in the next turn or two. I try to think if I should lose my creature in hand and spend the rest of my turn just to take the Rector out of his hand, and finally decide against it, thinking that he probably doesn’t have anything too devastating to Rector for. Obviously he untaps and plays Rector, sacs Rector and gets … Humility. So at this point I have the whole combo in my hand and I ask the judge what Humility actually does. He (along with the Head Judge) confirms that Humility means "Comes into Play" triggers don’t actually happen, and I’m fairly certain I can’t win. Then I remember that I have my teched out Stroke of Genius maindeck, and figure if I can stall out the game, I can win with a Stroke and saccing some of my Havenwood Battlegrounds.

The game goes really long and we get out all this land, and he gets out Visara, some sac Ghouls, 3 Pattern of Rebirths and a Pernicious Deed. The Deed was probably the only part I cared about, but regardless he Cabal Therapies me and with 23 cards left in his library I can only Stroke him for about 13 and I lose the game.

It was a really cool game, and it involved a lot of interesting decisions. Perhaps it was right to concede to Worship/Humility, but I wasn’t sure if my opponent would play around Stroke of Genius or not. When speaking with John after the match, he wasn’t playing around getting decked until about 20 minutes later, which means my plan worked about 2/3 of the way. If we had gone to Games 2 and 3, I was worried that his sideboard would have even more enchantments I didn’t want to deal with, so I figured it was a gamble either way.

Next round after that grueling 53-minute (time-extension) Game 1 I get paired against Cephalife and have another grueling 30+ minute game. Game 1 after all his tutoring it turns out that he does not actually have the Cephalid combo main, if at all. So he has a W/b/g Life deck and I have an Aluren deck whose Aluren’s are all gone and we spend about 30 minutes with him at 6 billion life and me having to use all 3 of my wishes for Stern Proctor, Bone Shredder and Volrath’s Stronghold. I have to Proctor his Test of Endurance about 4 turns in a row (casting everything out and not going below 6 or so because of the Auriok Champion in play) before I find a Cabal Therapy. Then he finds the Unspeakable Symbol and I have to kill all his guys with Shredder before he kills all my chump blockers. Finally he concedes after that.

Game 2 I board out some stuff (notably the Stroke, since I assumed I would have time to wish for the "normal" kill of Maggot Carrier) and he boards into the Cephalid combo (he didn’t even have the Cephalid main deck!) and flips his library on turn 2 after casting Cabal Therapy. So I have a Bird, some land, and a Living Wish in my hand and he has a flipped library (without the Ghoul or the Krosan Reclamation in it) and a Nomad En-Kor in play. I have to Wish for Boneshredder and cast it, so he can’t flashback Therapy and just win. Instead, with both of us at 12, he Krosan Recs on upkeep going to 11 with a City, and gets a Reanimate and a Therapy. He doesn’t draw the Therapy, and he then plays Forbidden Orchard to Reanimate his Krosan Cloudscraper, and attacks (the Red Enchantment equips obviously) into my board of Forbidden Orchard token and Boneshredder with me on 11. Next turn he obviously has the win, and I can only chump myself down to 1 (since Cloudscraper tramples over my two dorks) and I concede as time is called.

Of course, Cloudscraper does not actually have trample, which meant I should’ve blocked with my Shredder, untapped, and killed him as he’s on 1.

All I could think of was:

"If you ever are surprised by an on-board trick, you deserve to lose the game. You are not allowed to lose to an on-board trick from this moment on if you’re looking to improve your game. This means reading every card on the board, and ensuring you know its interaction with both every other card on the table and every card in your hand.

Think it’s a lot of information to keep track of? Guess what? Sometimes it is. But if you can’t get this facet of the game down pat, don’t bother to understand the rest – stick to FNMs and 1-2 PTQs. You’re allowed to make mistakes, you’re allowed to mess up – but every time you lose to an on-board trick, you have to immediately own up, call yourself awful, and vow to never let it happen again."

So, right, I am awful. I don’t know if that helps you get better or not, faithful reader. I know why it happened, which I suppose is important. I understand that on 4 hours sleep, with a 3+ hour drive, after playing two games lasting a sum total of 78 minutes my brain got frazzled, I got sloppy, and I didn’t read a card. The list of excuses goes on and on, trust me, and I won’t bore you. I suppose I hope that in writing this down, my PTQ experience where the wheels basically fell off, it will help you realize when this is happening to you, and how to refocus.

For instance, I should’ve done two things. First and foremost, I should’ve taken more time sideboarding and tried to clear my head for a moment. Just take a second, relax. Second, I should’ve realized that this was the last turn in two very long matches, and that assuming I could win this game, I would only have gone 1-0-1 in a series of difficult pairings, and probably wouldn’t face any stiffer competition until the Top 8. I wasn’t thinking about that however. I was thinking, "I’m tired, I shouldn’t have lost that last match, what was I thinking, God Humility is stupid, man I shouldn’t have boarded out Stroke of Genius against this guy what an IDIOT I am, I suck at Magic, this sucks how embarrassing," and so on. In other words, I wasn’t playing to win.

Now I know, I know, that dumb phrase is bandied about all the time whenever someone talks about getting better. Play to win, play to not lose, whatever. I’m basically sick of hearing that type of thing. You know what happened to me? I gave up, mentally. I was there, and I was playing cards and thinking about each play a little bit, but I just gave up, relaxed my grip, and that was that. 13 points of trample damage? Wow you’re so lucky, GG. It may sound bitter in retrospect but I think you learn more from the bitter stories than you do from the good play stories sometimes. I know that if I’m faced with this situation again, no matter how tired, or frustrated, or frazzled from previous matches I am, I’m going to read every card, make sure I know exactly what is happening on the board, and try to make the right play.

I’m learning a lot about PTQ seasons. It might surprise you to know that this is my first Constructed PTQ season where I’m going to every PTQ. The last time I did this was in Invasion block, and I didn’t stop because I was successful, I just didn’t like going to the Constructed PTQs because I didn’t have a good team. I haven’t actually played Block since IBC, and this is my first-ever Extended tournament! I hear decks like Trix, or Tinker and others thrown out there and I nod and act like I know what they’re talking about, but between you and me, I have no idea. Replenish? Sounds cool, Opalescence, yeah I’ve seen that card on Magic Workstation, Illusions of Grandeur? I think I’ve seen the one that did half as much maybe.

The point is being a neophyte isn’t as crippling as you might think. Sure there are the Flores’ of the world that can relate the history of Magic to you, but it doesn’t mean that they are going to be better players, especially during Constructed season. Throughout my time writing articles here at SCG I’ve always thought of one thing – how can I best help my readers improve their game? I’ve related embarrassing mistakes of mine, I’ve even admitted to running the "cheats" (the forum definition here folks, not the DCI version), all because I thought it could help you guys. Now I’m mired in a season where I have had no real success. I’ve made more mistakes than good plays, and I’m playing a deck that by all accounts is too much for me. I’m striving to be a solid player, and I’m finding that I’m coming up a bit short. It requires a rethinking of where I am as a Magic player, what it means to have potential, what it means to strive to reach that next level.

Mark Young speaks of the Beautiful Struggle, and in the abstract, I can’t help but agree. Any time you strive to reach the next level in life it is a beautiful thing, man against nature, man versus man, man versus himself, it brings out the best in you. Just read any Batman comic to see that brought to the edge of who he is, man becomes the best he can be. This is a nice ideal, but when you’re struggling, knee deep in the muddy trenches, week after week, and finding only failure, you begin to question yourself.

So it’s just a game right? I mean it’s pretty silly to get worked up over something so inconsequential, isn’t it? Bulls**t. If you read these articles, then chances are you’re like me; you play Magic to get better as a means to an end. You want to prove something to yourself, to hone an ability that extends far beyond the realm of wizards and warlocks. Competition in any form is a method of improving oneself, and to fall short of your goals, to strive and fail is to find fault in yourself, and no one enjoys that.

At the end of the day I am faced with a choice. Perhaps you have been faced with the same choice at some point in your Magic career. I feel good about that choice, writing this has helped me to put into perspective what I’m doing, and it feels good to be a writer that puts every facet of his game out there for the public to see, to show not just my successes but my failures as well.

Good luck with your choices this week. I’ll be seeing you later this week with a few thoughts on the upcoming Pro Tour.

Michael Clair

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