Within eighteen hours, I had met Matt Vienneau not once, but twice. The second time was more revealing.
My first meeting with Matt Vienneau was the night before Grand Prix: Richmond. He was a lanky, easygoing guy with a bright smile, as friendly as he’d seemed in the emails we’d exchanged. We’d been fans of each others’ writings for years, so it was a happy get-together; the twenty-minute conversation we had ranged from house prices to porno to the nature of committed relationships without skipping a beat.
We parted cheerfully.
The next day, I saw Matt over on the side of the hall, reading a book. It was halfway through the Grand Prix, so I sidled up to say howdy…
…and that friendly grin had stiffened into a pained rictus. It was the forced smile of a man whose groin had been shredded by a rabid pit bull, but it was in front of the kids so he had to pretend — everything’s okay, go get mommy! It was the look of the postal worker, reaching slowly for the rifle.
“I’m 3-2,” he said – and I knew he’d started with three byes. Two straight rounds of losses, and Matt was so mad he was shaking.
But that wasn’t the first time that day I’d seen that look — Ted Knutson had possessed that pent-up rage when he was discussing a stupid error he’d made that had cost him a game. It was eating at him. He shouldn’t make mistakes like that.
Meanwhile, I’d gone 0-2 earlier that day and I was totally lah-dee-dah.
I hadn’t really expected to win the Grand Prix, so my loss hadn’t crushed me. I wanted to do well, sure, but I arrived late for the second round to get handed an autoloss in Game One, and yeah it sucked losing to a guy who had to read the text on Golgari Guildmage to see what it did… But manascrew happens. It’s part of the game.
Maybe that’s why I lost.
See, my problem with Magic is that I still see it as primarily a game of fun. It’s not whether you win or lose, teachers tell students, it’s how you play the game. For me, that’s true. If I go 1-2 and have a good time talking to people and make some cool plays along the way, I’m great. There’s nothing on the line for me.
I don’t care as much. And as such, Matt Vienneau and I are playing two very different games.
Really, I should be looking at every play as if it were the difference between life and death — which, you know, it really is — and analyzing every facet of the board closely to see how it affects what I play next. But that’s tedious work, slowly processing each permanent and potential card-in-hand to anticipate what could happen, and then maneuvering into a strategy that sets you up for what you need. It takes time, and it’s not fun when you could be swinging with creatures! Whee!
I’ve talked about my impetuous right hand before, but really it’s just boredom. The interesting bits for me aren’t in the planning — it’s in seeing what happens. I want to know what comes next. Unfortunately, when you play to see what comes next, you’re often going to be unpleasantly surprised by the results.
There is a gigantic difference between “Playing to win” and “Playing to make it interesting,” and all too often I go for the interesting. I can actually see my attention wandering off as I go, “Well, he’s attacking me, and he has five mana open with two creatures, and I’ve got a Veteran Armorer with an untapped Ghost Warden and oh hell, let’s block.”
Then I get wrecked.
Q: How many kids with Attention Deficit Disorder does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Let’s go ride bikes!
What I should be doing is going down the laundry list of items that need to be relentlessly checked every turn: What colors can he play? How many cards does he have in his hand? What instants might he have in this format? What tricks do I have, and can they neutralize his tricks, and do I need to be blocking or can I just let it hit my face?
Every turn there are at least twenty good questions you should be asking and answering, like a questionnaire handed to you every two minutes by a really insistent marketing rep. And I don’t have time to sit there and consider the matter — what’s important is the interaction, and the fun! Wouldn’t it be fun to get a two-for-one?
So I lose.
I’m not alone, either.
I can see the breaking point when I’m watching other people’s matches. It always comes at the end of some weirdo stalemate, when there are ten creatures on the board and plenty of cards in both players’ hands. The good players will methodically scan the board for as long as it takes, carefully considering what land to play, then debating what to cast before combat, then carefully touching the card while they consider turning it sideways. They reluctantly remove their hand from the card as they send it into battle, then ask very carefully about damage on the stack. It doesn’t matter how long it takes; they’re doing the tally, working every last angle before committing to any position.
The bad players will scan for a minute or two, and you can watch them mentally changing the channel on the TV. They’ll look, shake their head as if to rouse themselves from this stupor, and say, “What the hell! All in!” Or they’ll just flip their hand and say “go,” passing the turn without seeing if anything has changed.
It’s not that we can’t think about it. If you were to interrupt almost any Magic player to ask them, “Say, what land should you lay on the first turn?” they would answer correctly. But the bad players will sometimes just flop a land down to see what comes next, and dammit, they meant to lay a Plains for the second-turn Selesnya Evangel but instead there’s the Swamp.
The intellect is there, waiting to be tapped. But for a bad player, the question is never asked. It’s like you just skipped past a stop on Magic Online because you never changed the default settings. Sure, you could have done something — you just didn’t.
To be a good player, you gotta ask. And ask consistently. Part of being a pro is smarts, of course — because the answers get more complex as you move up the chain — but the other part that doesn’t get mentioned often enough is consistency.
You have to ask the right questions every time. You have to look at the board anew on every turn to see if there’s a win you’re throwing away. It’s fighting past the static of a bunch of hard questions, most of which are going to lead to preordained conclusions (“No, you should not attack with your 1/1 into his 3/3, but thanks for asking”).
It’s about heart, and I just don’t care enough.
I’m not a total buffoon in life. If I lose at Magic, I’m still a decent writer, and I make good money editing and programming, and I have one hell of a wife. It’s just one aspect of me, and hell, if I lose what does it mean?
To people like Ted and Matt, it means a lot.
They’re putting more on the line — they’ve laid down a direct pipe between “Winning at Magic” and “Who I am.”* It matters to them because their self-esteem is tied directly into Magic. If they go 0-2 drop at a tournament, they are a worse person than they were before they entered the room that morning.
That fear wins them games. It’s the whip that stings them back to awareness when they start to drowse off. They’ll do that homework because the grades matter.
Not all pros are like that, of course — there are some easy-going guys who pull off phenomenal wins — but for most people, you have to want it badly enough that you are going to do the endless, each-phase gruntwork that comes with Magic. And the question arises:
How bad do you want it?
I realize that I’m playing at maybe 40% of my capacity. Mind you, I harbor no illusions about my skills; at one point, I was determined to go pro and I qualified for the Pro Tour in a totally accidental three months… But that was in Alaska, with a much smaller pool of players and a fairly insane deck. I’m not a terrible Magic player, but I’m not that great, either. Even were I to suddenly wake up one morning to discover that God had stripped all boredom from me, I’d still make worse decisions than Zvi or Kai or Nassif because they’re just smarter than I am.
But I do get bored, so I’m in the zone.
I bet most of you are, too.
A long time back, Rizzo told you about your inner Bruce — the guy who wants you to lose. But Bruce was there for you. I’m telling you about your inner Ferrett — the guy who keeps stepping out of the room to grab a smoke when vital decisions need to be made. ** You are not even there for half of your game.
You read the Premium articles to try to snag some wisdom from the better players, but deep in your heart you know that no matter how many times Eisel or Pelcak gives you a draft list, it still comes down to you scanning the thirteen cards you just got passed in the right way.
And you don’t frickin’ pay enough attention.
For years, I was a pudgy bastard, ranging towards outright “fat.” And I wanted to be skinny, but I wanted it in the same way I wanted that Grand Prix win. I kept hoping for that sort of magical exercise that tasted like candy and felt like sex, but all I got was sweat and that ugly exhausted feeling.
Then one day, I discovered that if I wanted to lose weight I had to put in the work, so I started running every day. It sucked, but I eventually learned to tolerate the discomfort of feeling my muscles ache. I’m not skinny these days, but I’m not fat, either; I look like an athlete gone to seed. Maybe next year, I’ll be fit.
Some people loooove the exercise. They get off on it, telling me how great it is to feel your muscles cry for mercy, and that’s the way their bodies work. They crave exertion. I envy them, but I can’t exercise like they do; if I did what they suggested and worked out when I felt like it, I’d be ninety-nine and still in a chair.
Likewise, there are some players who get off on that decision-making. They’re good. But if you’re not one of them, you’d better get used to the every-phase tedium if you want to Top 8.
I bet some of you are waiting for the miracle article that’s gonna shed off the Magic pounds and make you a lean, mean, fighting machine, and I’m telling you it ain’t coming. We can give you hints on this site, but the only way to become a good player is to somehow get used to flicking through that endless series of questions, and play often enough to know what the right answer is 99% of the time. You must endure a little monotony in order to win, for Magic — as good as a game as it is — has a lot of times when you just have to endure.
There’s no cure-all. You just have to do it.
Now go win something, and I’ll talk about actual Guildpact Sealed a little more next week.
* – Interestingly enough, the look on Matt’s face is not alien to me. Matt wants to be the best Magic player around; I want to be the best writer. If I publish an article and someone finds a mistake in it, I get that same, pent-up fury because I screwed it up and I’m better than that.
Not to plug myself again, but I do have this new Web comic, and this Monday’s strip is the first one where I feel we’ve hit a groove. The rest are those creaky start-up scripts where dammit, I could have done better; like Ted, I won the match, but that sloppy punchline could have cost me the laugh. I literally stay up nights, wondering how I could have 8-0’d that damn comic, knowing it’s been published and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Anyway, today’s Home on the Strange comic is on the nature of Internet fame. Check it out, if you want.
** – I don’t smoke. But the virtual Ferrett does. Let’s hope he gets cancer and dies, so that you can start winning some serious games, yo.