The Past, Present, and Future

Wednesday, January 5th – Julian Booher, a young Magic Online grinder, has learned incredible lessons from some of the best in the game and wants to pass them onto you. Read how you can improve your game.

There are three pretty basic aspects that I think have contributed to my getting better at Magic recently. The first is to not dwell on the past too much. While this is a pretty hard skill to acquire (and I haven’t even really acquired it yet), it’s fairly important to try to forget about the past and to not dwell on losses so much. It’s obviously a good thing if you’re going over a game and trying to learn something from it, but hopelessly tilting about a loss is just about the biggest waste of time you could ever have and is really detrimental to anyone’s success. People always say to take things one round at a time, and that’s exactly the mindset you need to be in at a tournament.

The next, and sort of related, aspect that has helped me improve the most is not letting myself get into a negative mindset when I’m behind in a game. This is fairly intuitive, but I see a lot of people just give up on a game when they can at least try to give themselves a longshot out to win. While it seems like giving yourself 10% to win isn’t even worth it, it’s really the long run you need to be thinking about. Are you just going to give up on every game? If you’re running good, giving yourself those chances could stack up into a deep run into a tournament.

Lastly, thinking ahead in actual games has by far been the most important thing I’ve learned recently. By thinking what the best play is at any given time, you’re really limiting yourself to the current information and game state, but if you think ahead and not necessarily play around everything but just play around some things,  you can win a lot more games. Similar to giving yourself small percentages to win, this is taking away those small percentages for your opponent to win. Sure they might have “gotten lucky” and topdecked that six-outer, but could you have made it a three-outer instead?

Don’t Dwell

I got a message on AIM complaining about flooding out the other day, and it got me thinking; what is there to complain about? People always talk about how they don’t want to hear bad beat stories, and really they’re just irrelevant. Why complain about flooding/getting mana-screwed? Either there was literally nothing you could’ve done to win, or you could’ve still won but punted. If it’s the first case, and you believe you should win 90% of the time or whatever, then swallow the beat and take the long-run percentage. Most people are entirely narrow-minded when it comes to results and tilt because they zero-deuced the PTQ. If you honestly think you should win, then get back at it. Why be upset about one result? I won two matches combined at the GP and PTQ in Nashville, but I know I can do much better than that, so there’s no reason to stress over the result.

Chances are, however, that you blew it somewhere. Doesn’t even necessarily have to be in-game. Did you really need sixteen land with four Myr? Twenty-seven land with ten accelerants in your Scars Block deck? To Shatter that Accorder’s Shield to brick a Glint Hawk and die to their Precursor Golem (how lucky!) when you don’t draw anymore removal?

Don’t Give Up

One of the biggest problems people have is that they tend to give up when they feel like they’re too far behind to get back in the game or if they draw too many/few lands, but I think you’re going to have a chance to win almost every game. I like to think of being mana-screwed or flooded as more of a handicap than anything else. It essentially just changes the way you have to play the game. If you’re flooded, then maybe you need to get scrappy and get aggressive in hopes to peel something later to win you the game, as most of the time that might be your only out.

One perfect example of this was when Mythic wasn’t quite the top dog yet in Standard, a month or so before Nationals. Basically every time I Sovereigns’d someone, they would concede; however, once in the mirror, we took a hit and survived. It basically involved playing Jace the turn after he got me, bouncing the guy that got the Conscription and hoping he either boarded one out or just naturally drew the second one. He had drawn it, and I chump-blocked his big guy for a turn and ended up coming back. While this isn’t really anything special to most people, it really changed the way I view playing the game.

While that’s not the prettiest way to win, sometimes you just need to get crafty when you’re really far behind and go for the comeback. You really need to desensitize yourself to things like nut draws or bad beats if you want to be successful, and that’s probably why people who reach a high level of Magic can transfer so well to poker. People always say “one round at a time,” and that actually means something.

Think Ahead

For a while, I thought I was doing well. I’d just X-0’d Regionals and my Midwest Master Qualifier, but there was always a step up. The most important part of getting better at Magic at this level is to not let yourself believe that you’re good enough. You can still have confidence, but it’s important to be realistic with your expectations of play and to know that you can always improve. At some point, almost everyone hits a plateau where they think they’re as good as they can get, but for me, I get into that sort of mindset and then hit a brick wall that I have to break through. Thinking far ahead into a game is a skill I have recently started to pick up on, and I think it’s by far the most important thing.

I was staying at Gabe Walls’ place in Indiana before Gen Con, and Gerry Thompson would bird my matches occasionally while we were trying to prepare for the Midwest Masters finals. I was playing Naya against R/G Aggro and was in control at one after grinding out a tough game of multiple Siege-Gang Commanders, all four of his Cunning Sparkmages, and an Eldrazi Monument. I had active Fauna Shaman, and Gerry walked away. I had the foe dead in two turns with my line, and he topdecked Siege-Gang for lethal in his two-turn window. I walked into the living room, and Gerry assumed I’d won, but I told him the guy peeled his one or two-outer to kill me. Gerry asked why I didn’t just tutor for Linvala, take two extra turns to kill him but have him drawing dead. At this point, I realized there’s so much more to “playing correctly” than just making the best attacks or playing the right things every turn. Once you get to the point that you’re not making those little mistakes, the complexity goes even further: into what can they draw or what they can have.

The only time I’ve been blown away by watching a game of Magic was the GP Portland finals when Martin Juza played around literally

Now, they had perfect information of their opponent’s decklists, but it was just unbelievable watching Martin take about ten extra turns to kill the guy, but it didn’t matter, as he had him drawing dead the whole time. Zac Hill kept talking about how the guy “almost won,” and Juza “let him back in it,” but really he was never in it; it just looked close because Juza was playing absolutely perfectly and had the guy dead the entire time, but it took so long to win that way.

I think this would probably be the hardest way to play for an average player like me, and I don’t think very many people are capable of literally playing around absolutely everything, but there’s a lot to be learned from a play style like this. I see so many people just jam and play around nothing, and while they may be a favorite for their opponent “not having it,” if you blank most of their draw steps by playing around various things, it’s so valuable.

Take It One Step at a Time

On an unrelated note, I want to discuss the importance of taking a Magic tournament one round at a time. Recently, I’ve been Top 8ing a lot more tournaments than I have in the past, but I just can’t break through Top 8 in any of them. The only one where I won my Top 8 match was at the Midwest Masters finals where we split Top 8 and were essentially playing for nothing.

I think I’ve nailed my exact problem but don’t really have a way to fix it. When I’m in the Swiss of any tournament, I’m only thinking about the round I have to win, not the finals, not Top 8, not about booking my flight to Paris, just about the game I have coming up or the one in front of me.

However, as soon as I reach Top 8 where the matches matter the most to me, I immediately choke up and lose my focus. I start worrying about the prize for winning and not about the actual game. In a PTQ, it’s literally first or nothing to me, as packs are pretty worthless, so I want nothing but first, but that makes me so nervous that I’m basically unable to play.

I think it just will take me breaking through and winning a tournament once to get over the hump, but in the meantime, I need to figure out how to change that mindset and remain collected in the Top 8. I definitely have a lot of confidence in myself and think I’m very capable of winning any given tournament, but I just need to stay tight in Top 8 and stop worrying so much about the prizes.?

You’re Only Terrible Because You Think You’re Terrible

How many times have you heard someone come up to you during a tournament and say, “I played against XXXX, so obviously I lost?” This is probably one of the biggest mindset flaws that almost every small-time Magic player has. Why on earth would you doubt your own skills all the time? That’s never going to help you improve your game, and all if does it essentially make you lose your match before it even begins.

One thing people need to realize is there actually isn’t that big of a bridge between the levels of a 6-2 PTQ player and someone who can Top 8 a GP. If you fear someone because they’ve just come off of winning a PTQ or they’ve just Top 8ed a Grand Prix, then how do you know that they played extraordinarily well to get there? All it really takes is average play and a lot of run-good to win a PTQ. I think that a quarter of the people at any given PTQ are capable of winning the whole tournament as long as they keep a level head, play okay, win the games that they should never lose, and hit a few four-outers. The difference between an okay player like this and a great player is the depth in which they see the game, and generally, great players put in a lot more preparation, and their preparation actually teaches them something because they’re not mindlessly jamming games before an FNM and looking at the results.

Almost every time I used to play someone that I knew was better than me (or at least had better past results), I’d get pointlessly nervous before the match. There’s no possible way that having this mindset will benefit you at any point, now or in the long run. If you don’t think you’re capable of beating people better than you, then why even bother signing up for a tournament?

At any tournament, there are going to be a lot of people that probably play better than you and work harder than you, and by giving up your confidence, you’re essentially giving them every edge possible to beat you. You’re going into the match with only one outcome painted in your mind, and if you get behind at any point, you’re basically telling yourself that the result is just coloring in your predetermined outcome.

This is probably the biggest thing I’ve learned since playing Magic Online. I’d always play on MODO and sit in GoodGamery.com’s IRC channel and durdle in there. Back when I could ever win at Standard (hey look, me being hypocritical, surprise!), I’d generally go 3-0 and offer the split and probably win when I got nosirred. I’d always be matched up against some ringer, get my split hopes crushed, and be completely dead the entire match unless I had an insane matchup. Everyone would make fun of me for offering splits, and I’d just ignore them and keep losing.

One time I was 3-0 in a Legacy Daily Event with Goblins and then got paired against Wafo-Tapa playing some terrible (obviously) mono-blue deck. He nosirred the split, and I got crushed.

I learned another accidental life lesson from Gerry that he probably doesn’t remember, but it changed the way I view things! Gerry was randomly in chat when I was in that Daily, and he endlessly berated me for ever offering a split, and my rebuttal was “well I’m obviously just going to lose since it’s Wafo-Tapa.” He told me the exact things I’ve said in this article: that if you go into that round hoping for a split, you’re diminishing your capability and either losing or making the bare minimum with a split. I didn’t think much of this at the time, but what he said has really rung true to me. I’d always use the logic that if I win, I get thirteen packs; if I lose, I get six, and if I split, usually I get ten by offering to concede. If I win 50% of my matches, I make less than that.

Then it hit me. Do I really only expect myself to win 50% of my matches against all of these people at 3-0? If I’m only giving myself credit for a 50% overall match-win percentage, then why do I even bother playing at all? That’s basically breaking even or worse if I’m playing bigger buy-in events. If I’m capable of getting to 3-0 without giving any of those individual matches a thought, then why on earth would my mindset change as soon as there’s something as little as seven packs on the line? Even when I’m 2-0 playing for guaranteed cash, I don’t think about that at all—it’s just another round—but as soon as I can stop playing for money and can take away the minimum amount, then I try my hardest to do that.

I now view playing against better players as more of a learning experience and a positive thing rather than a burden. I think there’s a lot to be learned from watching how people better than you play, and the only thing better than observing them is playing against them.

I remember at GP Kansas City in 2008 during Shards Limited, I ran 6-1 and played against LSV. This was before he was winning every tournament he played in, but I still knew he was a big tymer and was expressing my nervousness to basically any friend within 100 feet of me. I ended up beating him somehow and then losing to some nobody (you know, just Josh Utter-Leyton, our now national champion and PT runner-up). I took away absolutely nothing but a cocky attitude from this match and even called him “bad at Sealed” on MTGSalvation forums. He then went on to win Berlin, get second at Kyoto, and win however many GPs.

Then, the other day I played a match against him in Extended of Wargate vs. 4CC, and it felt no different from any other match I’ve played. We had some good chats during the match; I played a pretty sweet game two and won, then he peeled some (a lot) of runners to beat me in game three when I timed out basically due to aforementioned chats.

Instead of getting nervous and basically being dead the entire match, I played the match no differently than I would playing against anybody else. Maybe this has something to do with me generally trying to play every match tight or something, but it really felt no different, and we both traded games one and two on mostly playing better than the other (though he outplayed me much more than I did him).

If anything, playing against a good player opens up even more ways to make tricky plays. While I can’t think of any personal examples offhand, I can think of one that happened with Gerry. At GP Kansas City or GP Atlanta during Shards block, he was playing against Jon Sonne and attacked his 3/3 into a Rakeclaw Gargantuan when Jon had first-strike mana open. This obviously represents a pump spell, and Jon can’t really afford to trade his insane creature for a pump spell from Gerry’s Naya deck. After combat, Gerry Resounding Thundered the Rakeclaw Gargantuan. You’d hardly ever be able to pull this off against a bad player, and even against a good (or bad) player, if they have the right read, the only thing you lose is three life; however the insane bluff gives you a tremendous edge for the rest of the game.

Now, playing against people better than me just motivates me to win even more. I’ll know I have to keep it really tight and not make as many mistakes and focus even more on the game. I don’t really think about the finish line; I just know I’ll need to be extra careful in my approach to it.


and so forth… 🙂

iConn on MODO


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