The Thin Line Between Winning And Losing

Monday, December 27th – Three mistakes. If Terry had made three fewer mistakes, he would have made the Top 8 at Worlds. So he analyzes those errors to show you how to improve your game…

In order for a player to make Top 8 at a Pro Tour event, he needs a record of X-3-1 or better. At Worlds, X-4-1 would most probably get the job done, due to the fact that it has more Swiss rounds compared to a regular Pro Tour. This means that out of eighteen Swiss rounds in Worlds, a 13-4-1 is required — which comes to about an equivalent of 69.3 % win rate: 30.7% loss rate, with intentional draws excluded for simplicity.

In the modern era, players are getting better and better. Information is widely circulated around the net. Most decks are about 50/50, or at most slight favorites against one another. It is definitely a difficult task to have a win rate of 70% all the time. So why do some players make their way to the Top 8 over and over again, while others are always struggling to get there and never quite make it? Are the Pro players really that good… or have they just gotten lucky at times?

The honest truth is, everyone gets lucky at times, but it’s near impossible for a person to be consistently lucky. The best players win a large share of their games by playing consistently well, not just by playing well in good matchups, or when they don’t mulligan, or when their opponent didn’t “get so lucky,” and so forth. And that’s what makes the difference between the best players, the players who constantly make their way into the Top 8, and the mediocre players.

Today, I’m going to highlight some of the most interesting play decisions that I was presented with at Worlds. Personally, I always try to avoid blaming my losses on mulligan or mana issues. I always try to find out what went wrong and rethink if I could have done things differently before the game went slipping out of my favor. Although thin line mistakes are less obvious or to some extent they are not even “mistakes,” they are in fact fatal steps that make or break the current game state.

In this year’s Worlds, I went 4-2 in Standard, 2-4 in Limited, and 5-1 in Extended. And yes, in case you are wondering, I definitely threw some games away in the Limited portion.

Some losses fall under a category I like to call “natural losses.” These are games where you played your game perfectly, and there wasn’t any decision that you could have made in the game that would have changed the loss to a win. Your opponent simply outdrew you, or he simply had better cards than you throughout the entire game.


Standard decks were pretty standard, as most of the top archetypes were already finely tuned and well optimized before Worlds. Before U/B control swept Worlds, Valakut seemed to be the center of all decks, and this was especially true after
Gerry Thompson sweet victory at the StarCityGames.com Invitational
. My plan in Standard was to play either Valakut or something that beats it. In the end, I decided to play Boros because I felt I had an edge in that matchup.

Take note that there won’t be emphasis on any U/B matchups, because I have no prior experience against it and the deck wasn’t all that hot before Worlds. Furthermore, the point of this article is to illustrate how you can play a deck in different angle and earn your matchup percentage points through actual playing skills. Without further ado, here’s the Boros list I piloted to a 4-2 in standard portion of Worlds.

Thin Line Good Plays

The reason I claim that I had an edge in the Valakut matchup is because I played around Pyroclasm. All the time. Period.

In fact, Pyroclasm is

key reason why the red aspect of Valakut is actually good against creatures. Sure, Valakut itself can use Mountain to kill dudes, but you’re probably dead by the time your Valakut goes online without Pyroclasm. Furthermore, Gerry Thompson recent win with maindeck Pyroclasm further increased the popularity of the card in peoples’ maindecks.

If you look at my Boros list carefully, you will see that it was modified a little to make it easier for me to play around Pyroclasm. I have three Adventuring Gears and zero Sword of Body and Mind. I also have Kor Skyfisher instead of the fragile Spikeshot Elder.

How do you play around Pyroclasm while maintaining board position/tempo?

Ideally, here is how your games should go:

Turn 1: Goblin Guide, Steppe Lynx, or Adventuring Gear.

Turn 2: Play a fetchland, attack, but
do not

sacrifice the fetch, and play another one-drop — but don’t play a two-drop because you want to keep the fetch land untapped. If you have a turn 1 Lynx, you can add a Goblin Guide to the board — but I wouldn’t commit two Goblin Guides to the table by turn 2, because that means you just lose to Pyroclasm.

If you don’t have a one-drop, play a two-drop. The key is not to let your opponent two-for-one you using Pyroclasm — as he will usually hold it until he gets a two-for-one, and this is exactly what you want him to do.

Turn 3: Play a fetchland and attack with your creatures. You can use one of the fetches, but you must keep one fetchland around as you want to use it as protection against Pyroclasm. Play another landfall trigger card (Geopede, Lynx, Gear, Stoneforge).

Turn 4: If your opponent is still hasn’t used his Pyroclasm, because he can’t kill anything with it, you can go for the big turn and sacrifice all your fetch lands and deal him lethal — or leave him hanging with just a couple of life left. Chances are, you’re a big favorite to win at that point in the game.


My first draft was actually not that bad. I had two Volition Reins, two Ghalma’s Warden, one Chrome Steed, three mana Myrs and a total count of fifteen artifacts in the deck. But I actually went 0-3 in the draft due to a very heart-breaking mistake that I made in the first match.

Thin Line Bad Plays

Situation: Game 3 of Round 7 of Worlds Championship, 4-2 at the moment.

I had already cast double Volition Reins in that game, and my board was very strong compared to my opponent’s position. I knew that there was a very good chance that he was holding his Dispense Justice (I had seen it in game one), and was just waiting for the right opportunity to use it (he had metalcraft to make it better).

Turn of Blowout Mistake:

I attacked with three Ghalma’s Warden and a Chrome Steed, figuring that his Dispense Justice would only take out two attackers and I would still retain a healthy board position allowing me to keep the pressure on.

It turns out that I had completely forgotten the fact that he could assign blockers, and put “damage on the stack” so that my two of my blocked attackers received lethal, and

used Dispense Justice to take out my two unblocked creatures (although he did still take the damage).

Oops — did I just write “damage on the stack”? Isn’t damage on the stack no longer in existence? Just read further on to see what happened, you’ll get it soon.

I was completely tilted by my own mistake and I literally gave up at that point. I scooped my creatures to the graveyard and proceeded with a broken heart. Needless to say, I lost a few turns later.

After I lost the match, as always, I tried to recreate the puzzle in my mind to see if there is something different that I would have done.

It turns out yes! There is.

On that very blowout turn, my opponent was tapped low and had only two untapped lands and an untapped Myr. He actually blocked with the Myr and another creature to kill my Chrome Steed and there were also other blockers on a Ghalma’s Warden but it is irrelevant to our case study right here. He said “damage on the stack,” and then started tapping his remaining mana and Myr so he could play the Dispense Justice after damage resolved.

Do you see what went wrong here?

First of all, he said “damage on the stack.” I’m not sure if he was unaware or nervous at that point, but we all knew that damage on the stack was no longer legal. This meant that his declaration of “damage on the stack” was actually a declaration of “damage resolved.” I’m pretty sure we had already reached the damage phase, and he wouldn’t be able to pull it back, since he had announced it and I had passed priority.

So what’s the big deal, you might ask?

The blowout was, he should not have been able to tap his Myr for mana after damage had resolved because he did not tap it prior to his announcement of damage. This also meant that he only had two untapped lands — and he would not have been be able to cast the game-swinging Dispense Justice!

I am pretty sure if I had called a judge at that point, the action of tapping the Myr for mana would be illegal and thus the Dispense Justice could not have been played. Unfortunately, I completely missed the whole thing because I was too blown away by my own mistake.

Situation: Game 3 of Round 8 of Worlds Championship, 4-3 at the moment.

Most thin line mistakes are made during game 3s, because at that point you have access to plenty of useful information. By judging the way your opponent plays, there are many actions that are clearly written on his face — and yet, in round 8 of Worlds, I

walked into it and threw away the match.

My opponent is U/R with Koth of the Hammer, Bonds of Quicksilver, and Arc Trail. He had no instant tricks as I recall, but it doesn’t really matter because my mistakes revolved around these few cards anyway.

Turn 3: I accelerated into a turn 3 Ghalma’s Warden with a mana Myr. My opponent had a turn 2 mana Myr and passed his turn 3 by playing a land with a full grip of cards.

Turn 4: I played a bunch of artifacts, which all resolved, and I bashed with Ghalma’s Warden for four.

Seems like a perfectly normal play for most players. Turns out I had just lost the match by playing this way.

Keep in mind that we had already played two games, and I had plenty of information of what was in his deck. He had no counterspells, as my artifacts resolved, and he had four untapped mana on turn 3 with a full grip of cards. He must have had

to do with his mana on that turn. Obviously, he had the Bonds of Quicksilver. I even knew the card was in his deck, yet I still walked straight into it.

After I had attacked for four and passed, he played the Bond of Quicksilver end of turn on my tapped Warden and untapped into…….

Opponent’s turn 4: He played a land (total four lands and a mana Myr in play), plays Koth of the Hammer, untapped a Mountain to generate an extra mana, and Arc Trailed my remaining critters on the table. Bam!

If I had logically calculated that he had the Bonds, the correct play is to not attack with the Warden and wait for a turn to see if he has the Bonds or not. That way, he also wouldn’t have been able to play the Koth on his next turn because he wouldn’t have been able to defend it. Although I would have dealt four less damage if he hadn’t had the Bond, I would still have been in good shape that game because he literally had no plays on turn 3 and he would probably have been holding a bunch of lands anyway if he didn’t have the Bonds. I failed to recognize the relevance of him having the Bonds in hand and I overemphasized the four damage — which just wasn’t very relevant at that point.


I was 6-6 heading into Extended, and I hadn’t done much testing for Extended anyways. All I wanted to do was play a good, proactive, beatdown deck… and Mythic popped straight up in my head. I didn’t want to be playing Five-Color Control and figuring out how to beat each of the available decks in the format. Instead, I let them figure out how they are going to handle my Knights, Angels and Sovereigns. It turns out that Mythic is actually pretty good, as I went 5-1 with it.

This list is 90% identical to the lists played in Standard back then, except for the Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender… and they aren’t even good. I think Dauntless Escort is way better because it helps your big guys to dodge Maelstrom Pulse and Terminate, in addition to doing everything that Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender could do.

Thin Line Good Plays

Situation: Game 2 of Round 18 of Worlds Championship, 10-7 at the moment.

I had just defeated Brad Nelson (Five-Color Control) in the previous round 2-0 without much challenge, and now I was up a game in round 18 against another opponent with Five-Color Control.

I had a very good start in this game. My turn 2 Lotus Cobra was Mana Leaked, and I managed to Summoning Trap into a Sovereigns of Lost Alara. My opponent played a third land and passes.

Turn 3: During my draw step, my opponent played a Vendilion Clique on me. I revealed a hand with lands, Path to Exile, Baneslayer Angel, and Knight of the Reliquary. My opponent went into the tank — although I was pretty sure that taking the Knight was obvious. Turns out he chose to put Baneslayer on the bottom of my library instead! I drew a Lotus Cobra and I tanked.

By not taking the Knight of Reliquary when I could cast it on the same turn with him tapping out, it sent a clear signal that he had some sort of mass removal — particularly Day of Judgment because it would have swept my entire board clean. I proceeded to attack first, and he even blocked with his Vendilion Clique, trying to pull a Hollywood on me. He blocked, and I said, “trample for fourteeen.” He said, “Gosh, really?” and kept shaking his head as though he just made a bad play of blocking a huge trampler with a one-toughness guy.

To me, it was obvious he was trying to show he was weak when he was actually strong!

I deliberated a while about the possible cards that he could have in his hand. If I passed the turn without casting anything, Cryptic Command on a bounce-draw mode or a Jace on a bounce ability would put me in a bad situation because I wouldn’t be able to recast my Sovereign anytime soon. If I played a Knight, then Day of Judgment would be a huge blowout because the Cobra in my hand would have some difficulties winning on its own. In the end, I decided to drop the Lotus Cobra, because that play would work fine if he had Cryptic or Jace, since Cobra can continue attacking him, and I would still have a Knight as a backup if he had Day of Judgment.

It turns out that he did indeed have Day of Judgment on his very next turn! While he was tapped out, I snuck a Knight of the Reliquary in play, and the game was over in two turns. Yay!

With a record of 11-7 and some good tiebreakers, I managed to money at 67

despite throwing away couple of matches. Other losses were natural losses where there was nothing that I could have done.

If I could undo three mistakes from those matches, I actually would have had a sufficient number of points to make the Top 8.

Magic is a really tight game where the player with the least mistakes always wins more. On Sunday, I managed to do two money drafts with Sam Black and Gabriel Nassif. Sam and I did pretty mediocre in each draft, but Nassif was such a master that he 3-0ed each draft to bring victory for our team. Now, Nassif

open several bombs in each draft — but his plays were also perfect and he barely made any mistakes.

On the decisive game against Luis Scott-Vargas, he also tanked like forever to make a blocking decision — and the opposing team (LSV, Ben Stark, and Brad Nelson) made a comment on how Nassif would have been DQed if this was in a Pro Tour. Interestingly, Sam Black nodded.

But me? I appreciate how seriously Nassif took the game at every level. This guy clearly tries his very best to win at each game regardless whether it is a money draft or a draft pod at a Pro Tour. And this is also one of the reasons why he is clearly one of the best players in the world — I think he perfectly illustrates the example of a player who recognizes the thin line between winning and losing.

‘Til then, see you guys around at the Pro Tour.