The Three Types Of Player Errors

I feel I am an expert in this field, as I have made all these types of errors several times. I’d like to think that all type of errors fall into these categories, as inspired by Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things… So let me detail them and show you how to avoid them.

I went through several majors in my college experience. For about a year and a half, I was an Information Technology major – and in this major, one of my favorite classes was Interface Design. This class was much more of a theory class than one that taught us how to do stuff.

One particular part of this class inspired this article: There was a section on slips. I had forgotten exactly what they entailed, but I wanted to apply them to mistakes in Magic play. Unfortunately, when I went back to read the book, The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman, I found that the slips he discussed were simple messups, which can all fall under one category in Magic… So I decided to create my own list of errors in Magic and hopefully these terms will catch on. As for Norman’s book, it is a fantastic read and very insightful. I highly recommend it. (As do I – The Ferrett, who loves Donald Norman)

Now on to the Krouner theory of Magic Errors; I feel I am an expert in this field, as I have made all these types of errors several times. I’d like to think that all type of errors fall into these categories.


Norman subdivides these into six categories, each one dealing with a cognitive lapse. For our purposes here, I will combine them into one group.

Slips probably come up less than any type of error, as they are generally easily corrected in casual games, and because they just aren’t likely if you are paying the kind of attention you should be to a game. They do happen, however, and they are preventable. A slip is simply when you know the right thing to do, but you simply make the wrong play. Slips most often happen on plays you don’t think you need to think about before making. Here are some examples of slips:

You are in an Onslaught/Legions/Scourge draft. You are Black/White. Your deck contains a White Knight. Your opening hand consists of four black cards (none of which cost BB) cards, a Swamp and two Plains. You told yourself when you drafted the deck to always lead with plains if you have two in the opening hand, but you see the hand of all black cards and drop the Swamp on turn 1.

You knew the right strategy, but your senses told you that the swamp was the right play. This is what Norman refers to as a data-driven error. Your eyes saw black, and you played a Swamp.

I was playing in an 8th edition Sealed Deck Tournament. I had a Beast of Burlen in play. There were six other creatures, including a Hunted Wumpus controlled by my opponent. I had a Razorfoot Griffin in my hand, but I attacked first before playing the creature, and the Beast traded with the Wumpus.

I knew that playing a creature would make the Beast bigger, but I am used to attacking before playing creatures. Norman refers to this as a capture error; a familiar action replaced the correct action.

These types of errors can be avoided by focus, patience, and not giving into habit. Just don’t go the route of some people who would just as soon go to time every round; this is rarely a recipe for success.

Syntactical Errors

Syntactical errors occur when you are in a given situation, think about several plays, and choose the wrong one. The difference between this and a slip is that you are not aware of the correct play. Either it doesn’t enter your mind, or you discard the correct play for faulty reasoning.

I first heard this term from former CMU member Andrew Johnson. He used it when we debated the play skill of Matt Vienneau. I contended Matt was a bad player who got lucky with his successes; Andrew contended that Matt was a good player who made Syntactical Errors. Plenty of good players make these sorts of errors. Magic is a very difficult game, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The best players in the world make mistakes all the time. Here are some examples of Syntactical Errors:

Gary Wise is Playing Pat Sullivan for the Top 8 of Grand Prix: Philadelphia. Pat launches a lethal attack. Gary, looking for answers, cycles his Secluded Steppe. He finds a Shock. Seeing that this will make the attack non-lethal by removing one of Pat’s creatures, he Shocks a two-toughness guy; Pat had an Inspirit and Gary lost the game.

What didn’t enter Gary’s mind was that Pat’s life total was two, and he could have won the game outright by Shocking Pat.

I was playing in an Onslaught/Onslaught/Legions money draft. My memory of the exact board position was hazy, but there was an attack that looked like there were no favorable blocks for me to get my opponent’s Festering Goblin off the table without losing my Covert Operative with Lavamancer’s Skill on it.

What I failed to remember is earlier in the turn I had protected it from a Cruel Revival with a Mage’s Guile. My opponent couldn’t target the Operative this turn with the Goblin, so I could have blocked the 1/1 without worry.

These types of errors can be avoided mostly by practice, foresight, and caution. Had Gary just stopped to consider each and every target for the Shock, he would have won the game. Gary’s a top-tier player. If he can make these sorts of mistakes, you better believe you are doing it all the time. I sure am.

Strategic Errors

These are the deadliest types of errors. These are errors that are often made early in the game that seem innocuous, but they have built an incredibly shaky foundation for your whole game that even perfect play for the next several turns can’t pull you out of.

I would say the most common type of error made in this area is to not have a strategy. Many new players don’t stop to look at their opening hand, consider what their opponent will do, and set out a plan of attack for the next several turns. Putting sub-par cards in your Constructed or Limited decks (as well as bad draft picks) would also fall into this category. Here are some examples of strategic errors:

Mike Pustilnik was playing in a practice team Rochester draft along with Ed Fear and myself. Mike was playing his match against Alex Bedell. Mike’s deck was W/G with a splash of red, and Al was R/G. Mike was playing first and dropped a turn 2 Starlight Invoker. Al followed with a turn 2 Goblin Brigand. On turn 3, Mike’s hand consisted of two lands, an Aven Redeemer and a Dragon Scales. Mike opted to lay Dragon Scales on his Invoker to get two points of damage in and ensure the death of the Brigand. However, Mike should have simply blocked the Brigand and saved the Scales for the Aven Redeemer, which R/G has only Pinpoint Avalanche to deal with. Mike later lost his Redeemer to a Skirk Marauder.

The next day, we played in a PTQ. I was facing Andy Stokinger. It was game 1. It is my first main phase. His board is tapped Shoreline Ranger, tapped Mistform Seaswift, Mistform Wall, Noble Templar, and a Pacified, Scaled Riptide Survivor. All his lands are tapped, one card in hand.

My board is Noble Templar, Liege of the Axe, Grassland Crusader, and Primoc Escapee. My hand is Aven Warhawk, Mage’s Guile, and Frozen Solid, and I have four blue and four white mana.

He is at ten, I am at seven. Take a minute to think about what you would do…



The correct play is to attack with Noble Templar, Liege of the Axe, and Primoc Escapee. Pump the Liege, target the Ranger with Frozen Solid, and pass the turn. What I did was attack with just the Escapee (Syntactical Error) and lay the Frozen Solid and the Warhawk. Andy untaps, Choking Tethers my team, and attacks for seven damage. (Strategic Error.) I went on to lose the match in three games.

I was playing Anton Jonnson for top 8 at Worlds last year. I was at five life, but had tons of Bears in play from Grizzly Fate. Anton had tons of birds in play from Battle Screech. On his turn, Anton casts another Battle Screech and proceeds to flash it back by tapping two birds and a Tireless Tribe. On my turn I was able to launch an attack that left Anton alive, but with only five creatures in play. I still did not have a Wonder. One of the five creatures was the Tireless Tribe he had tapped for Battle Screech. Had he tapped a bird instead, he would have had five points of flying damage – exactly enough to kill me. Instead, it left him needing to top deck to win, which he did not do. Anton probably considered what creatures to tap, but chose to leave the extra bird up in case I drew Wonder – but Wonder was a lethal attack anyway. This error cost Anton the match, and Amiel Tenenbaum a Worlds top 8.

These are tough errors to correct. The best way to reduce the occurrence of these is to have someone watch your play and try to get someone better than yourself. Practice is also invaluable here.

I tried to use a lot of Pros in my examples to illustrate and important point: Everybody sucks at Magic. Sure, on a relative scale there are good players… But in reality everyone makes errors. The key is minimizing them. In a Team PTQ I played in with Mike and Ed, Ed had commented that his opponent had made quite a few mistakes. My opponent quickly jumped in with,”Oh no – he doesn’t make mistakes!”

This comment is absurd on two levels: One, no person can say that with any certainty about any other person. Two, this is impossible. If there were a player alive who doesn’t make mistakes, he would win every Pro Tour. Magic is most definitely a game of skill with a luck element to it. As Mike Turian put it, if you got mana screwed in one game, ask yourself why you didn’t win the other two instead of complaining.

I also used pros in these examples to give you a little encouragement: You aren’t the only one out there making mistakes. Everyone does it, and everyone will continue to do it.

So have fun, and keep practicing!


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