Things I’ve Learned From Magic Cards Who’ve Dumped Me

Wednesday, November 24th – Sean McKeown has a long history with Magic cards. His relationships with them have often been tenuous and perhaps sometimes misguided, but he’s learned a lot of lessons on the way.

10. Basking Rootwalla

The first time I got to play on the Pro Tour, I played Team Limited with Seth Burn and Kevin An.

The first time I met Kevin An, Seth and I had traveled up to Connecticut to play in a Grand Prix Trial with our third, a player I had never met but whose skill Seth vouched for. (What teaming with

said about his judgment, thankfully, I never asked.) We met and signed up and built our decks, and this being Odyssey-Torment-Judgment three-man Sealed Deck the best deck among the three was our Blue-Green deck for many of the same reasons that Blue-Green was good in Block Constructed in that era. Kevin got the Blue-Green deck, and among the cards he had in his deck was the innocuous Basking Rootwalla.

The first time I ever saw Kevin An play, he cast Compulsion on his second turn, then on his third turn cast Basking Rootwalla and later, at the end of his opponent’s turn, used his two remaining mana to activate Compulsion, discarding a card and drawing a new one.

The lesson I learned from this experience is not one I always remember to apply, but it is one I always try to remember, because I feel it makes me a better person. Clearly, I knew why this was inefficient; Seth certainly knew this was a bad play, and that the correct one was the same play but with that one extra card in hand. Kevin had wanted to use his mana efficiently that turn, if I remember correctly, and didn’t yet realize just exactly how the Madness mechanic worked.

I flipped out a little; after all, I considered myself a hot potential Pro Tour prospect (as do all too many hot-headed youths) and knew Seth had long experience on the Pro Tour, but to see someone who didn’t even know what the cards did as the person to whom I had just shackled my fate did not make me happy. I would like to believe that I tried to maintain some level of diplomacy, but I know that this belief is the needs of memory to paint itself in a favorable light more than it is the factual basis of truth. What actually happened was more like a frustrated tongue-lashing than it was polite and civil discourse, after the round was over, because regardless of whether Kevin won or lost (and he probably won, because he had the best deck of the three of us) he didn’t know quite exactly how his own cards worked and back in those days it was more likely I’d respond with anger at the situation’s existence in the first place than to seek to relieve the source of my frustration by making sure Kevin knew the interaction and would use it going forward from there.

At the end of the first round of play with my new team, I think we had a win in the bag, but I was telling myself this was it, there was no hope and we’d blown the tournament, and worse yet blown the Pro Tour qualification we’d hoped to obtain either by winning a qualifier or by grinding in rating points in a virgin format where everyone on Earth was starting at 1600 no matter how hot a future Pro Tour prospect they thought they were.

In round two and throughout the rest of the tournament, now that Kevin had been informed of the exact interaction thanks to Seth’s patient, level-headed response instead of my frustration, Kevin used the interactions between madness cards and Compulsion perfectly. In the span of one tournament and only a few hours, he went from the complete newbie who didn’t know how his deck worked to the cagy and cunning master who timed his Arrogant Wurms as mid-combat kill spells that also drew a card and whose Circular Logics never missed and always extracted maximum value, winning the match because they were used with critical foresight.

In actuality, however, Kevin probably didn’t advance very far as a player in the span of just that one tournament. He wasn’t a dummy, just holding the cards and making the plays we told him to. He was an intelligent human being with his own long experience with the game, and I only saw him as the anchor that would weigh us down for what was then looking like a very long Pro Tour Qualifier season. I felt as if it was already over, because he made one simple mistake the first time I ever saw him play, and because our fates were intertwined. What this memory says about me is far, far more telling than what this memory says about Kevin, and what I learned over the course of this tournament was much more than what Kevin learned.

What I learned was that as smart as you are, sometimes you’ll make mistakes. Nobody is an unfeeling automaton who makes unerring calculations constantly as they play, though hearing about Jon Finkel making a play mistake would be sacrilege, like saying the Pope isn’t Catholic. And it is important not to let yourself trip up on mistakes other people have made, just like it is important not to trip yourself up on mistakes you’ve made that you can’t go back and undo.

In the course of a Magic game, sometimes you’ll make a mistake. The way to do the best you can after the mistake is to admit you’ve made it and try to make the best you can of the game-state you now inhabit instead of pining for what could have been, or worse yet following an entirely different, tangential line of play, down which the mistake you have made was “the correct play” for that line of play. It is intellectual cowardice to attempt to cover your mistakes in this fashion, as you are attempting to hide your mistake not only from anyone who might have witnessed it but more importantly you are trying to hide your mistake from yourself by explaining it away, making it “right” by making it the first in a long line of mistakes that you can justify as “a correct play” even if it wasn’t

correct play. A contradiction cannot exist in reality; your play cannot have been both right and wrong, a mistake and a correct play. Attempting to hold it in your mind that way undermines your ability to advance as a player, because contradictions in your mind start taking on lives of their own, and soon enough you will forget that you ever made a bad play at all and only that you “made a judgment call”, choosing this alternative line of play for a wrong reason you accept as valid and right.

Once you stop learning from your mistakes and start hiding them even from yourself, your ability to learn and to grow might as well cease to exist, as everything that comes forward from there will be tainted by that irrationality. If you can’t be honest about who you are and what you have done even to yourself, who can you be honest to? When I realized this, that maybe I was making just as many bad plays but wasn’t letting myself see them anymore because I somehow believed that I was perfect, I had a stronger dose of reality than my fragile ego could take, and over the course of that tournament I got the reality check that I so desperately needed.

That is what I learned from Basking Rootwalla… and yes, we made the Pro Tour that year, even though Kevin cast Basking Rootwalla and then used Compulsion at end of turn. Sometimes you blow things out of perspective, and a reality check and some diplomacy will do a lot more for obtaining your objectives than going on tilt will accomplish.

9. Fireblast

I was a pretty dumb kid. And I’ve been playing this game forever, so when I remember who I used to be and where I came from, I am forced to remember some really, really old times. The first time I ever made Top 8 at a PTQ, Fireblast had a lot to do with it. Unlike many players who didn’t write at the time, if I want to see just how dumb of a kid I used to be, all I have to do is look on Archive.org and spin the Wayback Machine to the classic Dojo archives, as I did once when I dredged up my
first PTQ Top 8 and the tournament report I wrote for it.

Nowadays, I would look back in horror, and not just because I was casting Talruum Minotaur in a sixty-card deck and played Goblin Elite Infantry eagerly. The part that I always cringe to see is where I “just had to be me.” I can see it very clearly looking back, the way my mind used to work and where I figured I was out-thinking everyone else when really I just wasn’t thinking at all. For you see, I took the stock Red deck that many were playing at the time and cut a bunch of the Mountains for these other lands that weren’t as good as Mountains but which I was going to pretend were

mountains instead, because they let me reach into my sideboard for spells of other colors which I could use to beat the decks that regular Mountains couldn’t beat,
and beat the other Mountains too.

For you see, I decided that Honorable Passage was the best card in the format, and it was worth occasionally having dead Fireblasts I simply couldn’t cast in hand because I could cast any Honorable Passage I drew instead. Regardless of whether or not I ever touched my sideboard, I simply made myself considerably worse at what I was trying to do in order to give myself the ability to touch other colors later, and was so busy deciding I was smart when once in a while I won the game because of these other cards that I never even noticed when I lost the game because not-Mountain was simply worse than just Mountain.

I used to be afraid of playing mirror matches, you see. I didn’t have any confidence in myself because I was a pretty dumb college freshman who still all-too-painfully remembered that instead of attending his Senior Prom he went to play at Regionals that year instead, his first big tournament at some place called Neutral Ground, and that except for the internet nobody really seemed to like him and he’d never kissed a girl.

Nothing told me I should have had confidence at the time, and apparently I thought it was a commodity that other people gave you instead of something you learned to have in yourself, so I pretended to have confidence and was a jerk because of it. That overconfident jerk was one who was prone to say stupid things instead of admit other people were better than him or that he made at least one major mistake each game… a past iteration of myself I came face to face with again recently when Gerard Fabiano reminded me of something incredibly stupid I once said: that since Jon Sonne was making a lot of Top 8s at the time he must cheat, instead of the

possible option, “he is pretty good at this game (and because you’re not finishing well right now yourself, maybe you aren’t).” The unspoken part of that alternate hypothesis was the poison that was killing me when I started played this game, and the lengths I would go to in order to avoid ever playing a “true mirror match” were impressive, because if I played the mirror match then I and everyone else would see that with the exact same tools someone else was better at the game than I was. So, obviously, we can’t ever play the same tools if the self-deception is to continue.

Fireblast alongside Gemstone Mines and Undiscovered Paradise in my mono-red deck taught me what I was doing wrong, and worse yet what intellectual cowardice I had let myself sink into because I very simply didn’t have any confidence in my intellect or my abilities. Unfortunately, it would not do this until many years later, and it is because some aspects of my memories are indelibly imprinted on the Internet where I cannot misremember them and press them into the shapes I could only wish they actually held that I was later able to remember and learn from my mistakes which I considered to be success stories at the time.

After all, I had just made Top 8 at a PTQ for the first time ever… surely I must be doing something right, and it was well worth celebrating, right? Unfortunately, those were the bygone days of Magic when we were all terrible so that the not-quite-as-terrible were kings, and I ascended to not-quite-as-terrible and considered it a major accomplishment simply because I thought to point my burn spells at the other guy instead of myself. I would then lose in the quarterfinals of the Top 8 to Seth Burn, playing the straight-up Red deck with no twists or unnecessary gyrations, and the Gemstone Mines I had decided to play instead of regular Mountain very predictably killed me. So much for “innovations” to win the mirror match; apparently Dwarven Miner was better against Gemstone Mine than Honorable Passage was against Fireblast.

This mistake led to getting to know Seth better after he won the tournament in its entirety, and eventually led to two runs on the Pro Tour teaming with him, so all in all it was a pretty good mistake. I dread to think what would have happened if the mistakes I was making routinely back in those days had been met with success instead of failure, and intellectual cowardice would have only been reinforced by a Blue Envelope at the end of the day instead of a moderate success capped off with well-deserved defeat.

8. Goblin Ringleader

You would be surprised to learn just how long that intellectual cowardice on my part would last. My fear of playing mirror matches began at the very start of my tournament career and was at the time firmly grounded in reality by my own relative incompetence. In those first years, I made a few PTQ Top 8s but never understood why, because I wasn’t really doing anything right; I had mixed successes in Sealed Deck and Constructed, so it wasn’t clear that I was grasping one well and the other poorly, it was simply that I didn’t have confidence in my abilities and wasn’t challenging myself to improve them when I could instead pretend that I did have confidence in them, and they

good enough.

Worse, a few of my better successes came by borrowing the work of others, as for a while there the biggest thing I had going was a Top 8 at the North American Extended Championships (a tournament that in later years would be recalled by Mike Flores fondly as possibly the best Top 8 of all time, with Buehler and Finkel fighting it out in the finals and other stars crammed filled to bursting in that Top 8… and

) playing a deck I’d cribbed haphazardly a few days before from Erik Kesselman, a mono-Black Pox/Rack deck built to deny resources and lock the game up in an unfavorable board state in what was at the time referred to as an “empty-handed control” position but which I loved to refer to as Scroll Lock because the advantage was being gained or at least maintained by one or more active Cursed Scrolls.

With my fears reaffirmed and my successes borrowed at best, the seeds of self-doubt grew deep roots indeed, and it would be at least a decade before I would start to root them out. In the intervening years I had built a few excellent and original decks of my own, and garnered success with a few of them and somehow leveraged all of this into starting as a writer, which would lead to some intellectual validation when other people seemed entirely capable of winning qualifiers and qualifying for Worlds with decks I had created. I was still picking decks that I would personally play based off of my peculiar criteria that managed my self-doubts, but at least I knew what was actually good and learned how to design decks of my own that would prove successful in their own right.

And then one day I decided that Goblins seemed really good in Extended, a decision that was chronicled here on StarCityGames.com
in several

articles I wrote

at the time.

I had correctly noted a trend and saw some initial successes with the deck, being inches outside of the Top 8 the first time I played it and marching further onward to success as I prepared for a Grand Prix. But I had also managed to once again put myself into a deck choice that had the extra advantage of being unconventional, and so I need never fear of playing a mirror match because no one else was reaching the same conclusions I was and found that based on win percentages, making more Goblins was a thing worth doing.

Until I played Jim Davis.

You could say that at the time, most of what I knew about Goblins, I’d learned from Jim Davis. Jim has for several years had success playing Goblins, and in the year prior it was from watching Jim play that I learned to look at the Goblin deck from a different perspective and see entirely new modes of play that the deck engaged in, presenting the best aspects of speed, resilience, and combo-kill, whichever face it was that the opponent would crumble before. You see, Jim was a die-hard Goblin mage, and the decision to play Goblins was an easy one for him: he saw decks he thought he could beat with Goblins, so he Goblinsed them to death. I had to do math and even made graphs and pie charts, to figure out that maybe Goblinsing people to death might prove fruitful, but Jim had Goblins down cold and knew unshakably what I had to calculate carefully.

I even felt somewhat vindicated to see the Goblin master playing Goblins at the same time, and succeeding in the same field. That I was doing just as well as he was warmed my little goblin heart, because I had managed to imitate the master and reached the same clever decisions he did, so I too must be getting pretty clever at this figuring-decks-out thing. There was just one problem. Since I was doing just as well as him (in fact we both had the exact same record) there was a chance we’d have to play each other.

One round that afternoon, we did. And I knew I was dead the minute I saw the name of my opponent, because while I’d managed to conceal from myself some of why I lacked confidence in playing mirror matches, I hadn’t managed to hide all of it, and the old insecurities welled up from their deep dark roots to tell me that I might as well spend the hour getting lunch instead, such were my chances of winning the match.

I’d like to say there was something I realized during the match, some insightful turning point upon which the entirety of my future fate hinged, but there was nothing so critical as that, no single moment where I defied my past failures and picked a new path of self-confidence towards victory. No light bulb floated above my head, and no fairy godmother came to turn me into a princess and allow me to succeed at my every desire (if only until midnight when the carriage turned back into a pumpkin).

I simply wasn’t as bad as I had used to be, and since I had put in careful analysis into my deck choice and played it for a few tournaments now, and actually thought about all of the decisions I was making, I actually did okay. I’d still make a mistake from time to time, but I’d learned how to recognize them after and tried my best to not repeat my past mistakes, only allowing myself to make new and more interesting mistakes instead in the future. Somewhere in there, I’d arrived… not to Pro Tour stardom but towards the level of play it takes to succeed, the self-critical eye that observes what you do and why you do it and
asks questions

instead of
assumes mastery.

I won the match. Neither of us got egregiously mana-screwed, and none of the games were decided by turning four cards over with Ringleader while the other guy flipped four lands. I knew what was important in the matchup, just like Jim did, and while I couldn’t really outplay him I did the best I could with the tools I had available to me, and because I did, Jim was beatable: I drew a little better, or got a little ahead at one point and rode that small advantage to eventual victory, but what mattered was I was competent and when somehow the game was mine I didn’t try and give it back to him like I would have before.

Self-confidence in the game eventually followed, and that is how I learned to love the bomb and play whatever was right to play, not whatever was good enough to play that nobody else was playing also. Ten years after I was Fireblasting, I wasn’t exactly terrible and could even sometimes be very
good, all because this new self-criticism had switched on at some point and I was aware of when I was doing well, when I was doing poorly,
and what the difference was between the two.

Self-confidence came into my life when I learned to distinguish right from wrong and choose right instead, both with cards in my hand and in other walks of life as well. Goblin Ringleader helped to show me that change had occurred.

7. Sandbar Merfolk

A stopped clock is still right twice a day, and even when I wasn’t very good at this game, I still managed to find successes once in a while anyway. One such success came from playing a pitch-counter Merfolk deck the year Replenish was the Deck To Beat for Regionals. The Merfolk deck was born out of frustration, an emotion which frankly I used to be very, very bad at dealing with. As a child, psychologists told my mother that I handled many things very well, but frustration would send me off climbing the walls (literally, at least once) because I didn’t know how to handle it and just got more and more angry.

One week before Regionals that year, I was playtesting with Donald Lim at Neutral Ground and he was putting his Replenish deck through its paces. I’d somehow decided a Black/Green Rock deck would be the best for combating it, as it had access to all the right tools like Rapid Decay and Duress to try and forestall the deck’s plan for victory, even though it has almost never been right to play The Rock willingly and everything I would like about the deck I was slinging would later be proven to just be a bad version of Mike Flores mono-Black deck, Napster. What Mike was doing right never occurred to me, but as Don bashed my brains in time after time it became abundantly clear that this plan just wasn’t working.

Bash your head into a wall enough times, and eventually it’ll feel

good when you stop. But I am and always have been a very stubborn person, so instead of stopping and saying “well, I know this deck is very good, since I’ve been trying to beat it for hours and haven’t been winning at all,
maybe I should play it,”

instead I looked at my realistic options and considered that since just enough people knew about the Replenish deck that I had no hope of winning with it (mirror matches; they’d exist, of course), I would simply have to find a new way to beat it, one that would actually work.

My knowledge of history within this game was sufficient to draw some parallels. Replenish was a highly effective combo deck, one that would follow through certain definable parts of the game as it put together its victory condition and mopped the floor with you. Academy was a faster combo deck and at the Pro Tour in which Academy was the best deck, the best deck
to beat it with

was Merfolk. The humble Lord of Atlantis very nearly won everything that time, and so I picked up Islands but not Plains and decided to beat down. The flavor text even spoke to me, urging me down the path I had seemingly chosen:
“We have no legs,” the warrior spat, “for we have finished running.”

I built the deck, twisted it into the shape I desired and played all of the cards I truly wanted to in order to make it a deck with its own functional game-plan, not just something that could beat a Replenish player if I was paired against one. It was a reasonably wide-open metagame, after all, even if the very best decks were both unfair combo decks involving enchantments and graveyard recursion, Replenish and Bargain. Daze, Thwart, Gush plus Foil… I was entirely prepared to further my own plans on my turn and use these self-destructive measures on my opponent’s turn to hinder theirs, spending mana on my development, and using no mana to defend myself.

Looking back, I’m proud of the fact that on one day at least, I decided to beat down with Sandbar Merfolk. It takes some real balls to try and attack with a one-mana 1/1 whose special ability is to spend two mana to discard it and draw a real card instead, and while I still didn’t design everything exactly right, I got enough right that the deck stood on its own two legs (or one flipper, depending on how you looked at it) and obtained the record I sought: no more than one loss and one draw at the end of the day, with the record needed to make Top 8.

But if you remember from my mistakes enumerated above, one such was saying that Jon Sonne must cheat to make his Top 8s instead of maybe, you know,
being really good at this game,
and this was the tournament that sowed the seeds for that intellectual failure. It wouldn’t be for years to come yet that I actually had self-confidence to call my own, but with a victory under my belt (or a near-victory as it turned out, as I finished 9th on tiebreakers at the end of the day, with eight slots for Nationals), I’d somehow missed the lesson of what I had done right and jumped directly past confidence to land on overconfidence instead.

I’d picked up my one loss against Mike Flores playing some weird black deck with bad creatures like Phyrexian Negator and Skirge Familiar, and picked up my draw intentionally in the mid-rounds when paired against Scott Kasliner, one of the few other mages involved in Operation: Merfolk thanks to his trust in me as a designer and testing partner. I had to slog through several must-win matches in a row to end the day where I wanted to be, and the last of those was a must-win against Jon Sonne, the new up-and-comer on the Northeast PTQ scene who would later have a breakout summer and then far more successes than I’d imagined in his future. The match didn’t seem particularly hard to me, but a significant portion of that was inflated by the fact that his deck possessed Islands in it for me to Islandwalk over, and somehow I’d leveraged one of the worst cards in my deck (Coastal Piracy) into a positive board state with Masticore controlling his army and my truly terrible enchantment feeding him.

Even at that, it was closer than I then realized; I had simply powered through on the belief that people with Islands couldn’t beat me, and the power of Masticore. (The specimen appears to be broken.) Jon was in the game for most of it, and more of the match was due to my drawing well and him poorly than I’d realized, because I had already decided I was awesome and clever and destined to succeed finally because the stars had aligned and I’d made the right decision on the right day to obtain success.

I would later think back to just that one match I had played against Jon and conclude arrogantly that he was nothing special. The conclusion I reached was self-serving to protect my too-fragile ego: if he was having a string of successes in months to follow, surely that was breaking the rules of chance, and since I was better than him (that one match proved it, right?) and I wasn’t, he must be cheating. I have said a lot of stupid things in the many years I have been playing Magic, but that one is pretty near to the top of the list. And what I would eventually learn from that, the whole to-do with succeeding at that tournament and taking away from it the wrong ideas for the wrong reasons, was that results teach you almost nothing at all.

More important than results is

Poker players learn this innately if they want to succeed at the game, because unlike with Magic cards, the right play is still never a sure bet, just mathematically and provably correct and due to reflect success with a large and distinctly knowable percentage. Making the right play time after time is the goal, but the process you have to follow to get there can be nerve-wracking,
especially when you do everything right but lose anyway and then have to face the exact same situation again
and still make the right play that cost you dearly the last time.

I had lucked onto the right process for designing a deck to beat a defined and established metagame, by beating my head against the wall in frustration until I decided to try and give Replenish players that insurmountable frustration instead, and let that happy accident fill the hole where my self-confidence belonged until it became ignorant arrogance instead.

Years and years later, I would learn what the right process was, and just how stupid my indiscretions of self-doubt were when I felt I had to tear everyone else down to my low level instead of seeing their successes and asking myself why I wasn’t sharing in any of them. Sorry, Jon. (And thanks for reminding me, Gerard.)

6. Ponder

Last year was a very good year for me as a human being. It was pretty solid for me as a mage, also, as the reasons last year was good for me as a human being related very neatly to making better decisions as a hobbyist spellcaster. Last year started badly for me, however, so it’s very odd that something that began so poorly was nonetheless exactly where I needed to begin in order to find myself as a person. The year began by passive-aggressively pushing my girlfriend of a year and a half into finding me so intolerable to deal with that she would have no choice but to break up with me, ending an otherwise good relationship in as poor a fashion as imaginable. It felt like what I needed to do at the start of last year in order to make a clean break with the past and push forward with new resolve, to live by new guidelines and rules for my behavior and the behavior I would tolerate from others. The irony that I made that break while treating someone who was ultimately a very good human being so very poorly was unfortunately not lost on me, but that is life sometimes.

I have been slowly but surely transforming from someone who does whatever he feels like for whatever reason he seems to be able to justify to himself at the time to someone who tries to figure out what the right thing to do is and does it unerringly. Somewhere in there, approximately around when I tried to marry the largest bosom that ever let me touch it no matter how badly the woman in question treated me, I realized that my plan of action in life was to not plan anything at all or consider the results of my actions. That was the exact modus operandi that led me to consistently say yes to said eventual fiancée (and thankfully later ex-fiancée) until I was over $25,000 in debt, and she argued that I couldn’t hold it against her. I took it as a challenge instead of a statement of fact, and rose to the occasion.

Ponder is actually my first encounter with good, rational decisions with Magic cards in my hand, after finally deciding that I’d try to live up to my expectations for myself instead of living down to the excuses I was making for my behavior. In preparing for an Extended PTQ, going down to Virginia for a double-PTQ weekend, I was led to remember some testing I did with Rob Seder for Pro Tour Hollywood, despite my not being qualified. I had a simple innovation for that testing session, and had spent a few hours trying to take statistics and convince Rob to play Faeries like he was planning to, but to start with four Ponders in his deck instead of not.

Rob ended up not taking my advice, and despite the fact that I
wrote an article

attempting to persuade and/or inform qualified players that my version of Faeries might be worth playing at that Pro Tour, to the best of my knowledge no one else did either. If anything, all that stand earned me was some ridicule: I was occasionally ribbed for my desire to just stick Ponder in everything, and occasionally asked to sign Ponders as a good-natured joke at my stance on the card and the at-best C-list “minor celebrity” I had attained as a Magic writer for a popular website.

I would remember this as I was preparing for the double PTQ weekend because it seemed reasonably obvious that Faeries was one of the best decks to choose for the weekend, and in my testing with Rob for that tournament that never led to anything for anybody, I had found that playing the 56-card mirror-match, I was winning approximately 55% of the games instead of the 50% that would normally be dictated. We hadn’t played enough games to pin down anything exact, nor even enough to learn whether this series of wins and losses was a statistical fluke and just part of a random distribution due to variance in a 50/50 matchup, but it had always stuck to me how Rob responded when he got his hands on the Ponder Faeries deck: that it was everything Faeries was, just
more Faeries.

With that invisible effect where one deck had Ponders and the other didn’t, the deck with Ponder in it controlled its fate just a little bit more than Faeries usually did, with smoother draws in the early game and less prone to losing to mana-flood in the late game.

Turning towards being more rational as I found myself leaning at that time, I bucked convention and bucked it hard. I put four Ponders in my Extended Faeries deck and didn’t let anyone tell me otherwise, never mind what I would do if I had to choose between casting Ponder and suspending Ancestral Vision on turn one. That approximate but seductive number, 55%, floated through my head: I could be exactly the same as a regular Faeries deck, at a time when Faeries was an excellent deck choice for the metagame, and just be a little bit better at being the deck I was because I trusted math and saw a value in this draw-smoothing cantrip.

In what felt like no time at all, I was in the Top 8. Nothing was going to let me down, because I was playing very well and making good decisions, and my version of Faeries was just very consistent at doing what Faeries does. I had for several years a Top 8 “curse” if you will; in all of my previous tries combined, I had won exactly once in a PTQ Top 8 match, making it to the Top Four before gravity reasserted itself and I lost short of the Blue Envelope. The error was systematic and endemic. Making Top 8 was my stated goal, not winning the tournament, so once I got there I had no drive to succeed and found plenty of ways to fail, allowing me to “achieve my goal” by losing. But this time I was aware of the problems that had plagued me for years, and had something to prove.

Unfortunately, my deck wasn’t 100% properly designed. You see, while I had gotten the Ponders right, and they were critical to my successes thus far, I had Threads of Disloyalty in my sideboard for Zoo decks while my Zoo-playing buddy Josh McGhee had told us the whole ride down how much he loved his new friend Wooly Thoctar, and I had been focusing so much on what I was doing right that I never noticed the way in which I was subtly wrong: three was the new way to beat things that focused on two, and I had Threads of Disloyalty instead of reaching the next level and boarding Smother instead.

Everyone got to
watch me lose in the finals,

thanks to Evan Erwin and the Magic Show, and I had the cold comfort of being exactly right about one thing while being subtly wrong about another, dying to a Wooly Thoctar that was my final opponent’s entire game-plan because I was behind on the trend I should have been ahead of and didn’t have the Smothers that would have let me turn my game-one lead into my first individual Pro Tour qualification.

But the lesson wasn’t that I was wrong because of Threads versus Smother; the lesson was that even though I lost, I had proven my hypothesis: Faeries with Ponder in it was excellent, as my experience over the entire weekend had gone to show that just that little bit of extra deck manipulation was enough to grant me incredible power over the early game, distilling the power of Faeries into a subtly more potent brew. Never before in Magic had I discerned a trend that was too subtle to notice the impact of directly, then trusted my analysis and stuck by it as rationally as possible. To be results-oriented, the lesson would have been lost: I lost the tournament in the finals, after being up a game in what I considered a good matchup, so I’d have previously taken that blow and been crushed by it. But with my new desire to focus on the processes by which I live my life, instead of the results I was obtaining by random chance and happenstance, I could not call that level of success “failure” simply because I lost the last round. I had my first taste of what you can accomplish when you strive to be rational and learn from your successes and your failures both, and was an inch from qualification because of it.

We see much the same issue starting now again, with Blue decks falling into the “Preordain versus no Preordain” camp, and popular opinion leaning on recognizing that Blue decks should be built with four Preordains first instead of built and then weighing the value of Preordain versus those other four slots that are probably awesome cards. Preordain is even better than Ponder is, at least in formats like Standard and Extended, and I’m glad to see the argument to be the exact same deck you want to be but with about a 5% higher win percentage because of Preordain is winning the popular vote. It probably helps that its advocates are Gerard Fabiano and Patrick Chapin, instead of
some guy who calls himself a hack.

5. Zealous Persecution

In this newly minted attempt at living through a rational instead of impulsively emotional mindset, I next hit upon the realization just as Alara Reborn was released that Zealous Persecution was an excellent card in the nascent Standard PTQ metagame we were entering, and that a deck that used Zealous Persecution very well was my chosen starting point. On a car-ride down to a Star City Games double-PTQ weekend in Richmond, myself and my merry band of compatriots (Miles Rodriguez, Axel Jensen and Josh McGhee, three friends from my local playgroup) all seemed to have hit upon the same rough ideas and spent the trip down discussing and debating the merits of our position, trying to best utilize the niche we saw available to us (or in Josh’s case, finding an excuse to play Kithkin again).

As the guy who’d never played Kithkin before and thus needed the most help, I decided to lead the conversation and see where it ended up. Axel was enthusiastic about the card for many of the same reasons I had been, and much like myself had been testing first versions of a Black/White Kithkin deck online for a few days. But more importantly, much like how I had borrowed wisdom and experience from Jim Davis on Goblins, here I was trapped in a car for six hours with Josh McGhee, the best Kithkin player in the area, and since I had hit upon a future trend I intended to exploit I was going to make the most I could out of his knowledge in order to learn how to play the deck and finish tuning the numbers for the next day’s tournament. I was light on experience with the deck thanks to having played Faeries instead of Kithkin at every opportunity, and didn’t feel I respected how good Kithkin was from my time facing down against it. Most of my opponents were easily outplayed by one trick or another I had considered routine at the time, and I didn’t want to hold their deaths against the archetype as a whole.

The conversation we had on the trip down was long and led down many winding paths, but ended with a more-or-less consensus on what was the proper build for the deck and how the deck should be played in order to beat common matchups we could expect to face. I learned a lot I didn’t know, and three out of the four of us made the Top 8 over the course of that weekend, creating a bit of a fervor behind the deck as this was the first PTQ weekend of a new season and out of nowhere Black/White Kithkin had jumped to put impressive numbers up as Axel, Josh, and Miles each earned a chance at the qualification slot on one day or the other.

The lesson I learned here was that as clever as you think you are, experience is necessary. This applied not just to cards but also to real life; I had a lot of experience being in bad relationships, after all, and at a certain point it occurred to me to look at my most recent relationship’s end and realize that the deplorable state in which the relationship ended had at least one thing in common with the other relationships I’d been in that failed: me. As much as I’d like to think that because I had been in a few relationships I had that being-in-a-relationship thing down and knew how I should act to be fair to my partner in a relationship, in actuality I was being very self-serving and had managed to miss most of that because my partners to at least some degree were also trying to serve my needs, so I was getting what I wanted out of things and didn’t ask questions.

As a Magic lesson, it was clear that since I was encountering every decision tree for the very first time as we played through the games, no matter how smart I was or how in-depth the “teach me to play Kithkin!” conversation was on the ride down, I was trying to push through every decision tree with pure brainpower and wasn’t going to get every single one of them right. At least some of the decisions were not intuitively obvious, and I would have played better had I had previous experience with the deck. I felt pretty good about the decisions that led to choosing that deck in the first place, but simply needed to play more with the deck if I was to expect to succeed with it.

Romantically speaking, I wasn’t applying my past experiences in order to correct the behavior that was at fault within my own cerebellum before trying to be in a relationship in which I would behave rationally and fairly to my partner, and in there it occurred to me that I’d need some time alone to let that lesson sink in before I could be in a relationship I wanted to be in. Because I changed that past behavior mistake before going forward into the future, last year I actually started acting in a way I can respect and feel proud of just as a matter of course, and ended up in a good relationship instead of being the common factor at fault in a long chain of bad ones.

What this meant to me going forward as a mage was that I had tangible proof that what I had struck upon was good and worthwhile, because the other three people in the room with the same idea played out in their choice of deck design all found success in our shared exploits. It had a good game plan and matched up well against the best decks in the format, and all I needed to do was knuckle down and do the work now that the awareness of why it was right had come on in my head and been proven by others whose skills and results I felt I could trust.

I’m at least a little lazy, so it was hard to decide I wanted this badly enough to put in the work to try and succeed. I was able to push myself in the right direction by deciding to fly across the country to play the deck in a Grand Prix, where before I had settled in to only visit Grand Prix that were nearby and to which I had managed to earn three byes. It was for me an unprecedented decision since the end of my college years, to put my nascent self-confidence to the test by chasing victory; I once flew to Denver for a Grand Prix back in the bad old days when I was still a terrible mage (and almost undoubtedly a terrible person as well), but that misadventure was all about a girl even if on its face it was about the game. The question was simple: did I trust my analysis enough to put it to the test at a Grand Prix, and if so, was I going to put in the work needed to be able to play the deck at the necessary level before I went there?

The minute I bought the ticket, I was struck with self-doubt. It wasn’t a lot of money, but after the evil ex-fiancée ate several years’ worth of future expendable income it was sort of hard to justify. When I had locked in the decision and put the money down, there was nothing to do but prepare for the event so I wouldn’t embarrass myself, and I spent a month playing in as many events as I could and preparing for the event I was pushing myself towards by learning how to play my weapon of choice and ensuring that I wouldn’t repeat my previous mistake of having all theory and no experience to rely on. And because I’d finally committed to following the right process — not just in Magic cards but in discerning good decisions from bad ones by means of reason instead of irrational justifications — I did in fact do quite well at the event I had aimed at, battling for undefeated on Day One and ending up in 9

place going into the second day.

The second day was a comedy of errors that you would expect it to be after the second day running off of basically no sleep at all, but that was an entirely different lesson (changing time zones messes with your sleep schedule!) and my failure to make Top 8 from that position, qualify, or at least make money back on the weekend was not Zealous Persecution’s fault. Car-mate Axel Jensen would win a PTQ that very same day, so it was not a failure of analysis, just a failure to realize the physical limitations of my body. With a sudden unexpected change to my sleep schedule, I ended up with oatmeal in my noggin instead of brains, and that was what I came to game with on the second day of play.

4. Master of the Wild Hunt

If there is a card that I have loved the most over the past year, it would be Master of the Wild Hunt. Around when I was deciding to stop writing “Magical Hack” last year, to focus on writing a cyberpunk novel instead, I was touting the power of Baneslayer Angel and trying to put her in everything I could, even playing Baneslayer Angel in my

deck for the last PTQ of the season. But after I stopped writing with any regularity, I found more and more that Baneslayer Angel wasn’t even my favorite Mythic Rare from M10. That nod would go to Master of the Wild Hunt, the green man with a plan that I would put to very good use in Jund for the next year.

For States last year, I had decided it was obvious what the best deck was, and the bulk of my testing would be spent trying to figure out how to build the best Jund deck instead of considering playing anything besides Jund, and my new testing partner Morgan Chang and I went on a pretty wild tear with my tuned version of Jund, both ending in 2nd place at States that year, him in New Jersey and myself in New York. Again, I had reached success by following a rational decision-making process, but I made one minor decision that at the end of the day cost me the entire tournament in a spectacularly embarrassing fashion. You see, we had two “variable” slots, and a list of cards we thought we might want to fill them. We’d been playing two copies of Vampire Nighthawk originally, finding it good against Goblin Guide decks that we were a little soft to, but I’d gotten tired of seeing Nighthawks I wasn’t in love with off of Bloodbraid Elf cascades, so I had settled on the decision that I wanted that card to be a four-drop, not anything cheaper than that, because my Cascades were gumming up just slightly sometimes.

Enter Master of the Wild Hunt. Someone somewhere suggested he might be good enough to try, so I slotted two copies in and changed my singleton Terramorphic Expanse that was playing the role of 5

Savage Lands to an Oran-Rief the Vastwood, to synergize with my token-happy Master. I’d figured he was just close to being good enough, and the Vastwood would push him over that tipping point, having never played the card before but liking the initial successes I had seen with the card in the hands of Todd Anderson and others across various decks.

I was right to add Master of the Wild Hunt, he was exactly what I wanted and always an awesome draw. I was wrong about needing Oran-Rief to make him worthwhile, however; I never once activated Oran-Rief’s ability in a game that mattered, and even in the games where I had both halves of the combo in play at the same time the Master was doing an amazing job without it and I had more important things to do with my mana. That Oran-Rief would have been an amazing Terramorphic Expanse though, and I lost in the finals at least somewhat due to that poorly thought-out substitution.

Master was so amazing that I would later turn it into a four-of, and ever since February of this year it would take some twisting of my arm to convince me to cut Master of the Wild Hunt from my deck. Even if I wasn’t playing it main-deck, it was at least somewhere in my sideboard, as it was perfect for gumming up the ground then mowing down the board against decks like Mythic and Naya.

And then somewhere in there, I forgot to play Master of the Wild Hunt. I built an excellent version of Jund leaning on Lotus Cobra and Vengevine working together, and in about a month’s time managed to over-think my way out of a PTQ Top 8 (deciding “It’s Josh Ravitz, he always beats me, of course he has the Tendrils of Corruption!” instead of “Lightning Bolt his forehead, and if somehow he has it and that was his attempt to trick you and win the game, so be it, win the next one”) and just miss a Regionals qualification in the Jund mirror. I even stopped playing Jund, giving Mind Sculpting a try, only to lose out of the last PTQ of the season because I had let my control-player skills atrophy while I played Jund and not playtested the control deck I had carefully designed for the event.

M11 comes out, and we live in a whole new world. And I for the most part stepped back from Magic for a while, trying to focus on things with my girlfriend Jenny and pushing through writing in my spare time instead of playing Magic, and the metagame developments passed me by because I had nothing left to prepare for and no reason to care. I played my now-outdated Lotus Cobra Jund deck at a StarCityGames.com Open and the Grand Prix in Washington DC, even though all those delicious free wins I had been getting at the start of the season because people weren’t building their decks to deal with Lotus Cobra had dried up and blown away. And while I still kept my eye on things for the Baltimore Open in September, I wasn’t following trends as much or helping out with my playtest group any, because I just didn’t care as much as I had in weeks before and was getting ready for a Magical hibernation: sitting out the Scars of Mirrodin Limited PTQ season, and missing States because my best friend Neil was getting married that weekend.

But some loves die hard, and my nose for developing trends was still spot-on for that one last hurrah, my last chance to play Jund in Standard: the SCG Open: Baltimore. I had followed trends and deduced what mattered in the metagame, only to determine that Blue/White was soft at the moment and it was decks like Naya, Mythic, and Dredgevine that could be expected to show up, and the non-creature decks would be more like Pyromancer Ascension decks than Blue-White Control. And in a world where everyone is battling over creatures, Master of the Wild Hunt is very, very good. I decided to play
this deck

and focus on board control, even relegating the previously sacrosanct Blightnings to the sideboard because they don’t have an effect on the board.

It was a long day. I rattled off six wins in a row, and just had to marvel at the fact that with six wins under my belt I

wasn’t a lock for the Top 8 yet, even though I would now be drawing into Top 8 at the eight-round PTQs I usually play around here. I hadn’t really played the matchups I expected, since it seemed everybody and their mother was playing Jund; I’d faced it four times already in those six wins. With no Sprouting Thrinax in my 75 or Blightning in my 60, I didn’t consider myself favored, and in fact I lost every Game One and sideboarded into as close to a typical Jund deck as I could, relying on my year of play experience to win the mirror even though I didn’t have cards like Bituminous Blast or Sprouting Thrinax to work with. I lost the fifth mirror match when I was reluctant to accept that trading just my Inferno Titan for almost his entire board would be worth doing. Before I finally decided the trade was worthwhile, I’d said “go” a few times, and my Inferno Titan died to a Terminate. That’s how the Jund mirror works, after all.

My seventh and deciding win came against Jonathan Rubin, a local player I have always liked ever since the old Neutral Ground Grudge Matches, and with whom I had been hoping to intentionally draw in the last round. Unfortunately we were paired in the next-to-last round, and with him playing the good matchup I’d specifically aimed at because I figured it was critical to beat Mythic first and foremost, I couldn’t offer or accept a draw when I could bash his brains in for a win instead. My deck did what it was designed to do, and I opened the first game with turn two Lotus Cobra, turn three Master of the Wild Hunt, turn four Inferno Titan plus use Master, leaving him with three lands in play and effectively no hope of survival.

I drew the last round, glad that the only Blue/White deck I actually faced wanted to shake hands with me instead of beat me, and just like that I was in the Top 8 of the Open while putting Basilisk Collar on my Inferno Titans in my Jund deck, something no other Jund mages seemed interested in doing. Unfortunately, I was paired against the same player who beat me in the Swiss, and I have to wonder if I had just traded my best card for his entire board whether this tournament was mine to win. I have said I am not perfect, just a lot better than I used to be, and my reluctance to trade my best card with a Putrid Leech and a Sprouting Thrinax while killing three Saproling tokens likely cost me the entire tournament.

In my last outing with Master of the Wild Hunt, if I had only made it into the semifinals somehow, I would have faced Mythic twice in a row and likely hoisted the trophy and earned some considerable dough, all because I remembered my love affair with Master of the Wild Hunt. Identifying tournament trends and determining whole swathes of decks are vulnerable to a specific strategy, then playing that strategy no matter the ridicule you get for looking “unconventional”, is a critical skill worth developing and which I feel stems entirely from my newfound desire to be rational (because being rational leads to being

) instead of looking clever (but relying on pure luck to succeed once in a while). Identifying trends and having the self-confidence to follow that analysis through is a skill I’m not exactly used to calling my own yet, but this Top 8 performance was sufficient to qualify me for the
StarCityGames.com Weekend in December,
so I’m glad this ability has appeared even if the route I took to get to it was long and rambling.

3. Psychatog

Psychatog was one of the most powerful creatures of all time, and for quite a while I considered myself an excellent Psychatog player. The beautiful simplicity of math made Psychatog an incredibly good creature, because in addition to being able to grind out almost every other creature it shared a format with, it had a clean formula behind it: 1.5X + .5Y +1 = You’re Dead. For each card in your graveyard it could deal half a point, and for each card in your hand it could deal 1.5 damage. Sometimes you had secret information in your hand, because Fact or Fiction was actually “3U: Psychatog gets +5/+5″ if you wanted it to be, but one of the best control decks of all time was in my hot little hands and everything was going just like it was supposed to.

Remember how the last story was about how good things happen from being rational and making good decisions? This is not that story. Psychatog allows you to be so very perfectly rational,

rational in fact, and yet I found there were still plenty of ways to blow games with it.

First there were the mirror matches, and since this was still the early half of the last decade instead of the tail end of it, I was bound to lose more of them than I would win. I’d somehow bully through some of them, if for example they were new to the deck or built their deck wrong, or just drew poorly, but I wasn’t deserving of wins, just getting some of them anyway. And then there were games like this one which will always persist in memory.

It’s Regionals yet again, and I am playing what is essentially a win-and-in matchup against Yann Margolin, my then-nemesis of all things to do with Magic. I am playing the best deck in the format: Upheaval Tog, mathematically beautiful and with such a high power level it was absurd to think that I was only playing a Standard deck. Yann is playing basically The Rock plus Fact or Fiction, and I am just trying to figure out how to shut him out of the game because his deck is actually good at preventing me from killing him with Psychatog thanks to all of its Spiritmongers and Pernicious Deeds. I have enough resources to make Tog lethal, but connecting with it was going to be hard, so eventually I realized that my key to winning the game was going to be to cast Upheaval, float mana, and cast Psychatog again with my one land still untapped to play Circular Logic for an Innocent Blood I had to assume he might have lying around somewhere.

This is pretty basic for the deck, because this was its typical answer to how it beat

. Upheaval did two amazing things at once, returning every permanent your opponent controlled back to their hand (making Psychatog almost certain to connect for lethal) and massively supercharging your Psychatog (every permanent you controlled beforehand ended up either in your hand or in your graveyard, where it would count as either X or Y in the mathematical formula of what it meant to be a Psychatog). With one more land in play, I would be able to cast Upheaval, recast Psychatog, and leave Circular Logic up. I still didn’t have a Logic, but without the land either it seemed premature to worry about it.

I’m almost entirely capable of ignoring Yann’s side of the board; he has just a Spiritmonger that has to stay untapped to block Psychatog when he points a Lobotomy at me. I have Upheaval in my hand, a Psychatog in play, and just have to say “discard Upheaval” and he can’t Lobotomize them out of my deck. Again there is a clear right play. Mathematical, even. My play? “Derf, derf”. Not only did I not discard Upheaval to protect the copies still in my deck, it never even crossed my mind as an option because I figured he would take the other card in my hand somehow and forgot that the “somehow” was “because you discard Upheaval to Psychatog”. I was fine with him taking the other card out of my hand, figuring it increased my chances of drawing something live when I am looking to draw a replacement Upheaval, and in a pure brain-fart moment I don’t discard Upheaval and just show him my hand.

I promptly lost even though it took at least ten more turns to play out, because the end-game I had to rely upon was no longer present as an option and I really did need it. Of course, Yann made the Top 8 and qualified for Nationals while I got to watch and think about how badly I screwed up. The point of the story is this: no matter how mathematically beautiful the kill mechanism, no matter how certain the future victory is, there is still a human at the helm of every deck, and sometimes that human is Homer Simpson instead of Albert Einstein. No matter how infallible the future outcome may seem, you can do

to screw up, so don’t fall asleep at the wheel. Mistakes can and will happen if you do not guard yourself against them, they’ll even happen if you

guard yourself against them, but if you aren’t even looking for them, well, you won’t see them until after you’ve made them. The difference is, when you start paying attention to your mistakes and learning from them, you stop repeating them and will even see some of them before you make them instead of after, letting you prevent them instead of just kick yourself after the fact.

2. Rootwater Thief

I once took two years off from playing Magic, and I have the Rootwater Thief to blame. You see, at that point in my life I had been growing other priorities that were more important than Magic, but hadn’t yet admitted to myself that I would rather focus on them than on slinging brightly-colored pieces of cardboard at whomever sat down across the table from me. Really it was that I wanted to run a live-action role-playing game with my best friend Neil, and would be spending two weekends a month for the next two and a half years doing so. We were just at the beginning of that time, you see, and while I was starting to get distanced from the game, I had not yet realized that I needed to step away from it to do what I wanted to do. Magic had been with me as long as I could remember, and it was inconceivable to think this wasn’t going to be an active part of my life.

And then, despite the rust I had allowed to creep up over my deck choices and play skills, I kept pushing myself through tournament after tournament even though I’d have been hard-pressed to make a good decision if I made the Top 8, since I was supposed to leave by six in order to go run my LARP, my real passion at the time. Someone had to bash that through my brain, and finally, someone did. It was PTQ season again, and I had the beautiful opportunity to play my old trusty Merfolk deck once more, with the added bonus that it looked like it would even be good in the format again for that particular moment in time. When given the opportunity to play my favorite deck, I took it, good or not, so with the promise of match wins in my future I couldn’t help but jump on it.

I was good with the deck, because I had spent a fairly large portion of time in previous years approaching something in the neighborhood of Merfolk mastery, and this translated directly into results. Even though I was rusty, I was rattling off wins, and found myself playing Jeremy Cash in the later rounds of a PTQ, definitely in the running for the Top 8. Unfortunately, the round ran out of time despite the fact that we were playing at a reasonable pace; I didn’t then, and still don’t now, run into unintentional draws very often, so this was a complicated game of vying for board control and complex decisions with unclear outcomes on both sides.

The clock ticked down, and as the last seconds of the match expired, the clock ticked

the time until 6:00 came. My other priorities were starting to loom large, once again. My role-playing friends had shown up to Neutral Ground that afternoon around 4 and were starting to get ready to leave and head up to the game site, and here I had this match to finish and another to win and then the Top 8 and this was going to take forever. What I actually wanted was different than what I thought I wanted; I’d wanted to chase the Pro Tour for so long I was doing it out of muscle memory rather than actual desire, and what I wanted to chase was the cute girl in my role-playing game who always smiled for me because she had so much fun.

The clock ticked down, and I had to choose. If we drew, both of us were out of contention, and as friends (if not the closest of them) we were going to make sure at least one of us escaped the match alive in the tournament by having the other decide to concede. Usually these things would be based on something that made sense within the tournament: who had the best board state and would be most likely to win the match if it progressed normally, or maybe based on who’d be more likely to win their next round against a known set of possible opponents. So long as you don’t flip a coin and no one tries to buy the win from the other guy, a genuine concession is acceptable for whatever reason, and I’m sure he was playing through extra turns but also trying to play through his argument for why he was more likely to win this match going forward or perhaps the next one instead. I was just thinking about the clock ticking up to six o’clock, not the match, and wondering why I had put myself in a situation where I would possibly miss out on something I really wanted because I was playing Magic instead.

It’s a powerful realization, to come to grips with the fact that you’re actively undermining what you want in life because you haven’t thought through the decision. I was rather floored, because by every other metric I could think of I was having a great time: I was playing my favorite deck ever, I was
winning with

my favorite deck ever, I was inches from the Top 8 of a Pro Tour Qualifier with my favorite deck ever, and so long as I played my cards right and argued my case for winning the match we were drawing I’d be on my way to the Top 8 after winning an easy win-and-in match in the last round against yet another Blue control deck that doesn’t beat Merfolk.

Time ticked down, and the five extra turns evaporated. We battled intensely, but one of us was just putting up a show. At the end of five additional turns we still had no decided victor, and a future outcome still wasn’t clear. But it was to me with two magic words: “I concede”. I conceded, I dropped from the tournament, and I realized that as much as I loved Magic, there was somewhere else I wanted to be for the next few years instead of at PTQs. I didn’t get the girl… though she did invite me back to her place after game that night, and some clothing was removed for beneficial snuggling purposes. That too would probably prove for the best; just like how I wasn’t ready to take Magic seriously because of my other priorities, for the next who knows how many years I would have a lot to get through before I finally learned how to be sane and treat women right, and if I had succeeded at making her my girlfriend I’d have only ended up spoiling something that could have been nice by living through it and messing it up.

I left on a good note. Warm, fond memories of attacking once again with my Rootwater Thief, and warm, fond memories of the girl I wanted to chase but was smart enough to let get away for her own good. I’d be back to the game eventually, and eventually I’d even figure out girls a bit better too.

1. Mox Ruby

This one hurts.

The first tournament I ever won anything significant at was a small tournament far from home, in an oddball format and with a Mox Ruby as the prize. The format was Urza’s Saga Constructed, just Urza’s Saga, not quite like the full Saga/Legacy Block Constructed that would prove rather broken at Pro Tour: New York a few months later. I somehow decided the best card I could build my deck around was Dark Ritual, which frankly isn’t that bad of a decision even when in retrospect I could have tried to do something considerably more broken thanks to cards like Time Spiral and Tolarian Academy existing. I did something fair, but pushed that fairness a little to the envelope by at least playing Dark Ritual in my deck, and probably even Yawgmoth’s Will too. I killed a lot of people with Phyrexian Processor tokens because most everyone else was playing Hermetic Study / Horseshoe Crab control decks or worse, and I at least had built something reasonably worthwhile if nowhere near as broken as the format could have possibly allowed.

The tournament was in Colorado, just after New Year’s, and I was visiting Colorado to see my girlfriend. That stupid guy who was a mess of insecurities playing Gemstone Mine in his Fireblast deck had at least solved one of his insecurity problems, because he met a girl and they fell for each other pretty quickly and it’s amazing what a first kiss will do to bolster up the confidence of an eighteen-year-old boy. The girl had happened to pay for his tournament entry because he didn’t have five bucks in his pocket without hunting down an ATM first, and so the girl jokingly stated that because she’d paid his entry fee that the Mox was hers.

The boy knew she was kidding. The girl knew she was kidding, and knew he knew she was kidding. But it was a good day and theirs was a young love, and that was as plausible a reason as any for him to agree to give her the Mox she wanted to add to her Red deck that she so loved. He had a victory in his mind and a girl on his lap, and whether he had a Mox to show for it at the end of the day meant nothing. Just like how he had bought transit across three thousand miles to be there because he really wanted to be, if he really wanted a Mox he could have bought one pretty cheaply.

Eventually the boy went home, only to find he missed the girl again, and reappeared at Valentine’s Day to see her again. Things eventually got complicated, no matter their love, because they were young and far away from each other and he at least was young and stupid. Nine months after he won her the Mox, he broke off their relationship rather unfairly because of his own insecurities and because at least part of his brain was thinking he found someone new nearby to fawn over instead, beginning his years-long tradition of disappearing from a relationship the moment his insecurities reared their ugly head.

The Mox might perhaps remain in her future as a memory of him, a token of their past love. He never really thought that part through, just kind of woke up in bed with somebody else close to home and realized he had a new girlfriend. The boy never said he was particularly smart.

Looking back on life, it was amazing the first time I saw how I used to behave and realized there was a reason I was both never particularly good at the game and never particularly good at being in a relationship, and that for both of these failings there was one common reason. Everything I’ve said so far paints exactly what the reasons were: I spent far too long thinking far too little while expecting far too much, expecting somehow that because I was “smart” (whatever

means) that I’d succeed at what I tried to do no matter what that was, be it figure out the metagame and build a deck to win a Pro Tour Qualifier or figure out how to be good to the woman he loved and treat her fairly and their relationship with the care and work that it deserved.

In life as well as in cards, it’s not just the tools you have to work with (the right deck / sufficient intelligence / whatever) but how you use it (are you going to be rational, or are you going to reach whatever decision suits your fancy and expect it will all work out somehow?) that will lead to the desired outcome of success instead of all-too-predictable failure. The boy was smart enough to give the girl the Mox Ruby, but followed it up with some truly terrible decisions because he chased his insecurities and didn’t realize that was what he was doing until years later. He did some pretty terrible, unfair things in there at the whim of his “needs,” assuming somehow that fulfilling these arbitrary needs was the goal that led to a happy and fulfilling life.

In actuality, there was always another need to be sacrificed to so long as he refused to think his way through life instead, and a long chain of people starting with the girl with the Mox Ruby in her hands that he owed apologies to for how he treated them. Magic is a thinking man’s game, and I would eventually learn that life is too. And it stung to learn that I had walked my way down the wrong path, taken one misplay and made a lifestyle of it, all the while calling it a judgment call in order to validate my failures behind a comfortable screen of intellectual cowardice because I had not yet learned to choose right from wrong. Whether I even knew the difference was something I had to call into doubt, seeing my past actions in life, and the only decision I could see myself making was to admit the extent of my failings and seek to do right now that I knew it, instead of choosing wrong so that at least I could claim I was consistent or that it was a “judgment call”, a right play in the game of life down the decision tree I happened to find myself.

Magic is a hard game. And as John Wayne famously said, “Life is harder when you’re stupid”. Clever though I thought I was, no matter how much brainpower I applied to anything, I was bound to go nowhere so long as I was only struggling against myself, leaving the vagaries of chance and happenstance to pick my direction because I allowed needs, insecurities and the whimsy of others into my life as its highest values. It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you strive forward purposefully and with confidence, and amazing what trouble you can find yourself in if you fail to.

To me at least, it is not the results you get in life but the process by which you live it that is important; one of these things leads directly to the other, where otherwise it would be left to the vagaries of chance. And who wants to look back on their life when they are old and gray and think they should have mulliganed it, or worse yet
that they only achieved what successes they did in life by means of a series of savage topdecks?

Sam Stoddard changed the way we think about how we play this game when he put forward his
Fearless Magical Inventory.

Perhaps all I am asking is… why stop at Magic? Isn’t there more to life than cards, and more to be gained within it by challenging what you think you know? Somewhere in between all of these mistakes, I grew fearless and asked questions about my life, questions that took a pretty crappy person and changed things around entirely. I have every reason to think that no matter how personally intimate this insight may have been to me, that I am not a beautiful and unique snowflake, an atypical person when compared to the rest of the world. If anything, the screw-ups I’ve made along the way are entirely typical, human through and through.

But the challenge I would hope to share is the one I give myself every day: when every decision you make in your entire life describes who you are as a person and what future course your life will take, how can you make the best choices that will lead to the best outcome? And everything I have seen suggests the same answer, which is that the best outcomes are a result of trying to understand the world instead of assuming you know how it works, that you should seek to learn and think and actively challenge your worldview by means of logic and rational thought. These are skills that lead to success within the game, and while life is infinitely more complicated than Magic, it stands to reason that the same drive to understand the world and one’s own motivations will yield similarly fruitful results. Unlike Magic, however, you don’t get to playtest… or at least you had better not let your girlfriend figure out that is what you’re doing together until you meet
‘The One.’

Sean McKeown