The Seven Circles Of Losing

Fresh off his trip to Nationals, Jim discusses the seven reasons why you’re not winning Grand Prixs and Maher is. This is, perhaps, one of the finest”Get better at Magic” articles written in the past year; if you’re willing to take a good, brutal look at why you’re losing, you might want to start here.

Yeah folks, it’s been awhile. It’s been so long that I almost feel ashamed for not writing sooner… Almost. My single biggest failing as a contributor to this fine website is that I’d rather play Magic than write about it. I can’t feel too guilty, though – at least you can be reasonably sure that when I do decide to write, it usually means I’ve got something to say.

Since my last piece, I’ve been to Nationals and back, I’ve finally figured out the Onslaught/Legions/Scourge draft format, and I’ve designed several ridiculously bad block decks (and a couple of good ones, which will remain under wraps) in an attempt to find something groundbreaking in the format. It’s been a hectic couple of months. But this time, I’m only going to talk about those little tidbits in passing; there’s something a mite more philosophical that I’ve been thinking on for a long time, and it is an affliction that we all must face in Magic.

Wait for it…


What is it? Why does it happen to us? Many moons ago, John Rizzo wrote a little something about a man named Bruce. He wrote,”For all the millions of decisions you make per day, the possibility of Bruce exists in each one, no matter how insignificant the decision may seem. And the possibility of Bruce is ten or twenty-fold in Magic.”

For those who’ve never read the article, I’ll explain briefly: Bruce was an abstract concept based on the notion that we sabotage our own attempts to be successful because of a latent but much greater need to lose. After each game, he recommended a mental check of one’s play to see if you ever knowingly made a”Bruce” move.

Now, I’m a slightly more optimistic person than Johnny Friggin’. I don’t believe that all of us necessarily have a Bruce that we must rally against in order to win at a card game. Surely there are those who live out their own self-fulfilling prophecies – sitting down at the table with the expectation of losing, and then making good on the promise. But take it from me (because God knows I’ve taken my lumps), the vast majority of matches are lost for the reasons below:

Reason #1: You (Yes, You!) Are Not That Good

Face it, dude: you are not any good. You want to know who’s really good? Jon Finkel. Kai Budde can play a bit, too. Bob Maher, when he’s feeling it. Some other chaps on the Pro Tour are pretty good, too.

You’re not one of them.

What is”good” play, then? To me, good play is when you can be 90-100% sure that you’ve made the proper decision given the information gleaned from the board, the flow of the action, and your feelings of what your opponent’s next play may be. Note that this is just the degree of certainty you have inherent in the decision. The next facet of tight play involves your opponent’s immediate reaction or follow-up play and then cross-checking your prior play for correctness.

If you find that after the facts are reviewed, you make the correct plays throughout 90% of the match, and do so with 90-100% confidence in your decisions, then congratulations – I would feel safe in calling you good. You’ve probably also made a lot of money playing Magic and shouldn’t be wasting your time with this article. If you, like me, have not made a lot of money playing Magic and are working to achieve this level of accuracy in your play, then read on.

Remember, it’s super easy to make 50% quality plays with 100% confidence. I find that’s where most Magic players in the”plateau” period of their careers reside; they don’t even know that they’re making suboptimal plays until they actually start getting serious about performing post-mortems on prior losses. Go back and review a few of your match losses on Magic Online (if you can), and study them. If you’re not sure about how correct a play is, figure out all of the things you could reasonably do on a particular turn with the mana open and write them down. Then, counter-assess your opponent’s next couple of plays based what you did do and what you could have done. If what you could have done would have yielded a more positive outcome over what you did do, your play was probably not in the 90-100% correct range. If you don’t have or don’t play MODO, then see if you can get a friend to watch your games and give you comparable feedback.

I don’t like having to attach these arbitrary percentages to a very subjective enterprise, but this is one case where numbers help to systematically analyze, with full hindsight, the degree of correctness of a play and your confidence in it. Yes, that’s a mouthful, but it is what it is.

And hey, while we’re talking about arbitrary numbers – a word on rating!

Most players agree that rating points are a pretty firm indication of how one player might fare against another, or how one’s own skills stack up against the rest of the field. It is a neat and tidy number and one that qualifies us for Pro Tours, gives us byes at Grand Prixs, and inspires general fear amongst the masses if it’s high enough. You check your rating after every sanctioned match when playing online. How much did I go up for beating rfuller? How much did I lose for dropping the match to that damn scrub? We all do this, too – checking our own rating against those at the same table in a draft on Magic Online, and then gleefully rubbing our hands together when noting our first round match is with the 1568 rated jacklpup13.

DCI Rating is a fallacy. It provides a derived number based on who you have beaten and lost to in your Magic career, that’s all. My Constructed rating is 1924 – which is reasonably high but certainly not tremendous, ranking me twelfth in my state. Yet… I am not that good. I know this.

I haven’t yet reached the level where the top pros live, a level where rating isn’t even considered when two players sit down and shuffle em’ up. When Zvi Mowshowitz plays Justin Gary at a Pro Tour, nobody will honestly offer that Justin is better because his rating is higher. Those guys certainly aren’t worried about such a contrivance. They know that when they sit down to play each other, they’re probably equally matched in skill level and the contest is going to be dictated by the matchup and who plucks what and when.

My Limited rating before Nationals was in the 1500s. I’ve played only a few events total, mostly prereleases, to earn that fine number. Yet in the two Rochesters at Nationals, I had the best deck at the table each time and handily dispatched a couple 2000-dwellers. What does this mean? In both of these matches, I definitely felt I was the superior player, even though my high 1500s rating should prevent me from ever having such an attitude. I didn’t get lucky, they didn’t get landscrewed – I just won. While shooting the breeze later on in the day, a player that I respect told me,”If you’re near 1600 and I’m near 2100, then it proves that the rating system is nonsense. I bet if we played a hundred games, it would probably go about 50-50.”

In your next MODO draft or sanctioned match, please do me this favor: Don’t even look at your opponent’s rating. I know it’s hard; just don’t do it. Try to figure out what kind of player they are and whether they’re making mistakes. I’ve seen very good people get frustrated and go on tilt because they begin losing to someone in the 1550s, and it colors their entire match.

Magic: The Gathering is a card game where you draw from a randomized stack. Anybody can win; never forget this.

Reason #2: Your opponent got a lucky opening draw, topdeck, or seemed to cast the most devastating spells possible for you turn after turn

Some time ago, a sage pulled me aside and whispered the following axiom:

“With this game, you have to realize the following concept: In 12.5% of your games, you’re going to just lose no matter what. Conversely, the other 12.5% you’re going to just win through no fault of your own. It’s what you do with the other 75% that makes you a good Magic player.”

Ah yes, the twelve-fiver – the game you’re destined to lose.

You draw all blue spells and three mountains. An opponent goes turn 1 Taunting Elf, turn 2 Elvish Warrior, turn 3 Timberwatch, turn 4 Timberwatch. You go Swamp, Dark Ritual, Dark Ritual, Hymn to Tourach, Necropotence. An opponent goes down to five cards while on the play.

How well would you accept winning or losing in the above situations? Do any of the above seem exceedingly fair?

Of course they don’t. These are the extremes. This is the 12.5% that – try as you may – you can’t quite stay away from. I’m sure everyone’s heard the”stop whining about luck and you’ll immediately become a better Magic player” adage.

Unfortunately, I’ve found that getting frustrated about someone else’s luck or your lack of it is often linearly proportional to how good you are or how good you think you are. I am a pretty easy-going guy, generally. I don’t get too bitter after someone beats me in a twelve-five game. However, over the last couple of months, I believe that I have gotten dramatically better at Magic. I’ve been working hard, winning a lot, and generally have been satisfied with my play. A couple of weeks ago, I played a kid named Nick in our local Sunday tournament at The End. I was playing Gabe Walls’ R/W/G Astral Slide and he was playing a B/W Dragon Reanimator deck featuring Bladewing the Risen, Rorix Bladewing, Dragon Tyrant, and a host of other platinum hits. We were in the third game when said kid played his second land and then dropped Stabilizer, proudly proclaiming”Yay! It’s the only one I own, too!”

It takes a bigger man than I to sit idly by and take a bad beat like that without getting frustrated. When Lady Luck kicks me square in the genitals, I can’t help but get a little upset. It was one card out of sixty in his deck, and Nick played it on the turn when it crushes me the most. I ended up losing to someone who pretty much under no circumstances should be able to beat me.

But… Do you see the problem inherent in that attitude? It presumes that because I have become a better Magic player (at least in my own mind), that I should not be capable of losing to unforeseen circumstances.

[cue bomb dropping noise]

[cue inner voice]

Whoa – right back down to Earth there, Jim. The kid made a pluck, and you lost. It’s not the first time it’s happened, and it certainly won’t be the last. Get over yourself. You (yes, you!) are not that good.

Just this last weekend, my psyche was put to the test again. It was in the Top 4 and my B/R Reanimator deck was up against a teenager running Goblins. Having tested this matchup dozens of times, I knew that if I could Reanimate Phantom Nishoba, it was impossible to lose. Still, it is always possible for Goblins to just demolish anyone with a sick draw.

Guess what happened?

In game 1, I was landscrewed for one turn and lost. My opponent kept a one-land hand with a couple of Raging Goblins, a couple of Goblin Piledrivers, and a couple or Reckless Charges. If he plucks a second land off the top ropes there, I am toast unless I draw a Sickening Dreams. He drew his second land and rolled me like dough. In game 2, it was more of the same. Except that I died even faster (if that’s possible). I was goldfished out in five turns with the aid of the ever-popular Goblin War Strike (a.k.a. Lava Axe for one red and perhaps sick tech for the Onslaught Block Goblins mirror).

All of the while, the young man was ridiculously happy and smiling like it was the best day of his life; taking down one of the local”good” players with something on the line undoubtedly meant a lot to him. And you know what? I was cool with it. I congratulated him and was totally at peace with the loss. Why?

I knew there was literally nothing I could have done to win that match.

I was losing it, no matter what. I remembered the lesson from the previous week and knew that getting upset would be completely unproductive. Yes, I knew in my heart that I was surely a better player than my opponent. Yes, he surely got ridiculous opening hands two games in a row. I would have had every right to grouse, like I did the last week when I lost to that unexpected Stabilizer. The circumstances weren’t really all that different. But for that brief flash of time, I was allowed a glimpse of the player I never ever wanted to be – a poor loser. I never want to see that player again.

Losing with maturity and grace in defeat will get you further in Magic – and, I daresay, in life – than you might think.

Reason #3: You don’t know your own deck well enough or know enough about its matchups to play optimally

Let’s examine a hypothetical classic aggro vs. control matchup. What is the first important lesson you learn when playing against a deck containing Counterspell and its ilk? You learn what you need to use for bait and what you actually need to resolve. If you’re piloting R/G beats against Psychatog and you have both Compost and Phantom Centaur in your hand with the mana to cast both in the same turn, when he can only counter one of the two spells… Which spell should be the bait and which should be the one you really want in play?

The answer depends on a lot of things. What’s on the board? If you have stuff to soak up a Chainer’s Edict, then the best play is to bait with the Compost and then drop the Centaur. Phantom Centaur will kill a Psychatog deck in four turns if left unchecked, while Compost may or may not generate enough card advantage for you to win the game if you opt to resolve it.

However, if you’ve got five creatures down with only those two cards in hand and the Psychatog player has got six cards in hand… You might give Compost a little more consideration. You’ve already got threats out, and Compost will probably give you more, allowing you to catch up on the card count if he starts killing stuff with black removal.

If you had done some work with the Tog matchup, you’d probably be able to make the mathematically correct play no matter what is on the board. This is what testing is for; to determine the best plays based on prior evidence. When I was designing The Ralphie Treatment, I tested it tirelessly against all archetypes and figured out what I needed to do in order to win against each. I learned what I had to force through counters, I learned what creatures to lead with against each deck, I learned when to cycle and when not to. I learned my deck through and through and it treated me very well.

After I beat a gentleman on day 2 of Nationals, he griped,”I don’t understand! I tested this matchup and I was winning at least 90% after sideboarding!” After the initial shock of hearing it wore off – someone actually tested against probably the most rogue deck at Nationals? – I wondered how his claim could possibly be true, since Tog was a matchup that I won handily after boarding in my own testing. Why I won was not a mystery; I knew Ralphie better than he knew Tog and I knew Ralphie vs. Tog better than he knew Tog vs. Ralphie.

In helping Gabe Walls prepare for the Top 8 at Nationals, our playtest group found Elephant Guide to be the key card for R/G vs. Astral Slide. If R/G could Guide up a kid on the third turn and had some burn in hand, it was usually game. Then we watched with complete bafflement as Jordan Berkowitz sided all of his Elephant Guides out in an attempt to make Gabe hold dead Disenchants all game. Huh? However nice it may be to stick your opponent with dead cards, you simply can’t take out the card that if resolved is going to probably win you the game if Gabe doesn’t have Disenchant in hand. I’m not sure if Berkowitz did the testing himself or had people test for him, but his crew had to have discovered this. I don’t believe that taking out Elephant Guide allowed Jordan’s R/G to perform optimally. I could be wrong, but I think that poor testing furthered his losing cause in an already tough matchup.

If you want to lose less, test more. Sounds easy, but can you honestly say that you put in all the time you could if you’re cold chillin’ in The Bean Bracket with a record of 0-3?

Reason #4: You misjudge what cards in your opponent’s deck truly further his path to victory

Failing to understand how to properly attack your opponent’s deck or not comprehending what your best tools are for the job is probably the primary cause of most normal losses. As I just finished saying, if you haven’t put the work in to a particular matchup and don’t know the ins and outs, you’re very likely to make play mistakes that are going to end up costing you in the long run.

At Grand Prix: New Orleans last year, I had done absolutely zero preparation and knew nothing about Extended going in to the tournament. You, Jim? Unprepared? Check out my report if you don’t believe me. I decided to run Psychatog, and in one match I was paired against a good player playing The Rock. Somehow, I mistakenly believed that Pernicious Deed was a card that I didn’t want to see on the board, so I set out to try and counter each one. I felt that without Pernicious Deed on the table, I could easily just win with a resolved Psychatog. Little did I know that Pernicious Deed doesn’t even matter in the matchup, as I later discovered. I completely misjudged the card as a path to victory, when in reality it doesn’t matter at all. My opponent was practically using Pernicious Deed as a three-mana Duress to draw out my Countermagic.

Knowing what enemy problem cards to worry about is still more knowledge derived through testing. Sometimes you can just look at an opposing deck and say,”Yeah, his four Composts in the sideboard are going to be bad times for my MBC.” But a lot of the time, things aren’t so obvious. For example, my opponents playing U/G Madness would usually sideboard in their three Composts against Ralphie – a card that totally does nothing except keep me from cycling Undead Gladiator. Yet these opponents saw that I was running black cycling cards and black removal spells, so putting in Compost was like a preprogrammed response. If they were paying attention (and I can’t really fault anyone for not testing vs. Ralphie since it’s not exactly mainstream) they’d know that the black spells don’t win me the game against U/G – the white spells do. A much better call would have been to put in Upheaval, to which I have no good answer. The match usually goes long enough for an opportunity to cast it, and the U/G player’s speed out of the gates after a heave might be enough to put away a victory.

The best way to learn from the examples above is to actually put time in playing behind many of the decks you expect to face. Nothing teaches you to play a deck… Like playing a deck! That’s so blindingly simple, I feel like an idiot for having to say it. You don’t truly know how a deck works until you’ve shuffled up and played with it. Run it on Apprentice. Run it on MODO. Just runnnnnnnnnnnn iiiiiiitttttttt…..

Reason #5: You don’t have a good idea of (or have misjudged) the broader metagame

Metagames are usually somewhat cyclical in nature. A lot of the time there’s a dominant deck, then the deck that beats that deck takes its place as the top dog, only to be taken down by the deck that beats that deck, blah blah blah just shoot me now. Our most recent standard metagame went as follows:

  • Kai Budde writes an article about R/G. R/G becomes the dominant deck.

  • As a direct result of Kai’s article, more people start running U/G to combat the R/G menace.

  • Seeing U/G (once again) as the format’s most dominant deck, more people begin to run Mirari’s Wake, MBC, and Psychatog around the time of Regionals to foil U/G’s dastardly rise to the top

  • Expecting a control-heavy metagame at U.S. Nationals, many pros and other players opt for good ol’ R/G Beats again to really kick Wake, Tog, and MBC in the junk

Scourge changes everything now, of course, but this is where we were coming out of U.S. Nationals. I made the mistake of replacing Ralphie’s two maindeck Teroh’s Faithfuls with Bane of the Living, expecting Elves and Zombies to be more of a factor than R/G. I was totally wrong. I did not face Elves, Zombies, or R/G at Nationals, but I did have a rather random round 1 pairing vs. Goblins, which I lost due to manascrew in game 3. I drew Bane of the Living, and it was worthless. Teroh’s Faithful would have allowed me to win handily instead of being pecked to death by 1/1s underneath an Ensnaring Bridge. I made a bad metagame decision, placing a suboptimal card in my deck… And it cost me the match.

The Standard metagame is notoriously hard to decipher, as you often don’t know what’s really going to show up until you actually walk around the tournament and see what’s what. Keeping up to date on the Internet will and knowing what decks are hot at the moment is always a good idea. Being up on the history of a particular tournament (U.S. Nationals, for example, has classically been a beatdown field) will help, too. Smaller metagames, like Block Constructed, are a bit easier to tackle. The best example of a man completely calling a metagame was Zvi Mowshowitz win at Pro Tour Tokyo with”The Solution” during the IPA days. The deck featured many”bad” cards like Obsidian Acolyte, but his deck was tuned so perfectly to beat the dominant decks – and as long as the matchups came up as he envisioned, the deck couldn’t lose.

Have any of you ever reached that level of preparation for a tournament? Few of us will, but really making a concerted effort to keep up to date on the very latest happenings does usually pay off.

Reason #6: You didn’t prepare yourself physically or mentally for the game ahead

You’ve all read the”tournament preparation” lists – make sure you get at least X hours of sleep, eat a good meal, know the deck you want to play for a couple weeks in advance, etc. It’s not hogwash. It’s not there for your health. These are things that you’d do well to heed if you want to be successful. Please sit back and relax, and I’ll spin ya another hard luck Nationals yarn:

I’m playing vs. JSS superstar Arthur Noah Minetz in round 2 of Standard. He’s playing R/W/G Slide, and I’m playing my trademark B/W Slide. I’m already down a game, but I have the second game firmly in control with Exalted Angel primed up and only 1 card in my opponent’s hand. In Arthur’s end step, I put my hand down next to my graveyard and then pick up and proceed to count through my bin. I put down my graveyard and grab my hand, and then draw my card for the turn, placing it face-down in my hand. I pick my cards up and fan them in front of my face. There’s a Duress in there, so I cast it.

Except then I look at my graveyard, and realize that there’s no longer a Duress in there when there once was. I have no idea how the damn thing ended up in my hand; the only thing I can posit is that I must have picked up my hand in concert with my graveyard at some point and fouled the two together. JUDGE!!!

I got a game loss and lost the match 2-0.

The previous night, through no fault of my own, I got maybe three hours of sleep. I am a very light sleeper, and the time change definitely screwed with me. I could have taken some sleeping pills with me to San Diego, but I forgot them – that part is my fault. Unless your name is John”Money” Mahon, lack of sleep will crush you in a game where you have to do a lot of high level mental reasoning. It can cause bad plays, it can cause carelessness – it can even cause you not to care whether you win or lose. My lack of sleep added up to me being mentally unprepared for day 1 of Nationals, and I paid for it with a 2-4 record. All that junk that people write about preparing for tournaments – listen to it! Losses to being tired or hungry are probably the most preventable, so please do prevent them.

Reason #7: You make a play mistake or a rules mistake which directly results in a loss

Day 1 of Nationals, still. I am paired against Darwin Kastle in round 4. He has a mediocre B/W cleric deck, and I have an absolutely disgusting R/B deck. I roll him with Graveborn Muse-powered ease in game 1. I have lethal damage on the table in game 2; Darwin has no cards in his hand. I play a morph face down, thinking it’s Skirk Marauder, and I’m going to flip it over to clear out his last blocking creature and swing through for the win. I flip over a Skirk Drill Sergeant. That’s not a morph, people. JUDGE!!!

Sheldon comes over and hands me down the game loss himself. I go on to lose the final game and the match.

Yeah, all those little goblins look the same. Yeah, they both cost 1R and have 2R in the text box. Yeah, I know even Kai Budde did this before. Yeah, I had only three hours sleep.

All excuses. I still made a freaking careless error.

It was completely my own fault, and I gave away a match that I had completely won. I took my second game loss on the day like a man and resolved not to make a bonehead out of myself any more. After consulting with Sheldon over my”Jimboobery,” as he coined it, I played great in my final two matches, but caught a twelve-fiver in game 3 of the final round (I took eighteen damage on turn 5 in Limited – and no, Nantuko Husk wasn’t even involved) to end up a dismal 2-4.

Every now and then you’re going to make a rules mistake, like I did. In over seven years of Magic, I had never gotten a game loss for procedural errors until the worst possible time – day 1 of the toughest tournament of the year. But at least with rules mistakes, you can chalk them up to a simple moment of boneheadedness and resolve to never fall prey to such idiocy again. Play mistakes are the ones that really burn. Did you attack with something when you shouldn’t have? Did you use your best removal spell on something inconsequential only to find something you really needed to kill on the table the next turn? Did you opt to cast Rush of Knowledge instead of dropping two morphs when you had the chance?

The worst part about play mistakes is that you rarely know that you’re making them until either a) someone tells you or b) you review your game front to back and see where things went down the drain. Sorry to keep harping on the Magic Online game replay function, but it is, quite honestly, a great tool that you should be using if you want to improve. The next time you lose a game – or hell, even win a game fraught with play mistakes – you should really try to assess each and really determine the”why” of each. Usually it comes down to not seeing something on the board, not realizing the importance or signal of an opponent’s particular play, or misreading your opponent’s situation completely. The next time you walk into a Slice and Dice with your whole team or forget about Snarling Undorak’s ability to pump any beast… Think about the”why.”

There! Now that you’ve learned how most losses are earned, you can avoid them and never lose again! Errr…. If only.

A Quick Aside:

I know some of you are out there clamoring for the Nationals report, but I’m here to tell you that there’s not gonna be one. I went 7-5 overall, going 4-2 in Standard and 3-3 in Limited. I went 5-1 on Day 2 after getting a good night’s sleep at last and only lost due to landscrew in the 8th round. For all five of you wanting to know how Ralphie fared in the Standard portion:

  • 1: L – Goblins (Landscrew, Raging Goblin fifteen turns to freedom.)

  • 2: L – R/W/G Slide (I played a Duress out of my graveyard. GG!!)

  • 3: W – Mirari’s Wake (Headhunter SMASH…)

  • 10: W- Psychatog (Headhunter SMASH! Also, Persecute you for seven.)

  • 11: W- U/G Madness (Almost impossible to lose, my best matchup.)

  • 12: W- U/G/b Madness (He was land-light.)

That’s about it for now. Next time (and I hope it’s soon), I’ll be looking at the post 8th Edition implications for B/W Astral Slide and trying to work up a new playable build for the archetype.

Until then, a final rule: If you lose a game of Magic, do not act pissed off or grouse in the presence of your opponent. I don’t care if you go and do it with your friends and swap a bad beat story; everyone does that. But when you’re face-to-face with the man or woman who just beat you, don’t be an idiot. This includes online play, where the sportsmanship is even worse because the tournament culture of MTGO perpetuates pack winning as the only acceptable outcome of any endeavor.

Remember: You are not that good. Don’t be a sore loser.

Enjoy life.

Jim Ferraiolo

[email protected]

Dobbs on MTGO and IRC