Thirst For Knowledge – Lessons Learned, Perspectives Gained: An Article For Everyone

Grand Prix: Oakland!

Thursday, January 21st – A good friend of mine recently updated his Facebook claiming that he was going to take a break from Magic after a crushing defeat at a local FNM. He said that Standard was too luck-based, and that he had grown very tired of playing the game. This person is a good friend of mine, and someone that I’ve not only tested with and partied with, but also competed alongside at many PTQs. Let me show you what I told him…

A good friend of mine recently updated his Facebook claiming that he was going to take a break from Magic after a crushing defeat at a local FNM. He said that Standard was too luck-based, and that he had grown very tired of playing the game. This person (who I won’t name, obviously) is a good friend of mine and someone that I’ve not only tested with and partied with, but also competed alongside at many PTQs. Before I get into it, let me show you what I told him:

Usually when people quit playing, it’s because they don’t have the time or the drive anymore, not because they lose at FNMs. If you’re going to “take a break” because of a bad beat at a local tournament, then don’t bother coming back to the game. I tell you this because I’m your friend, man – if you don’t have the drive and ambition to improve your game, you’re always going to do poorly.

I went to a PTQ in Chicago yesterday, and I 0-2 dropped it after losing to Martyr with my Zoo deck. Yeah, one could say that that match-up is near-unwinnable and that I shouldn’t feel too bad about it, but I still do. I played a poor deck choice, and an 0-2 drop is an 0-2 drop. However, instead of getting upset about it and taking a break, I’m going to spend the week testing and go to Garden City next week feeling better and more prepared than ever.

You’d better be there.

My friend came back by saying that he also didn’t have much time and that he hadn’t tested Extended much, which meant that he didn’t plan on going to any PTQs for that format. This is fair — there’s little reason to go to a tournament that you have absolutely no preparation for, after all. And considering that as I began this article this particular friend contacted me and asked me for a deck to test this week for Extended, you’ll see that this is less about him and more about the idea of what he attempted in general. This person saw that he should keep playing, and he will. But some don’t, and it’s a shame.

We’ve all encountered someone who is trying to quit the game. They tell you about all the things they hate about it, and they typically tend to quit in response to yet another poor finish. What I’ve never understood about these people, though, is how they can possibly justify it in any way. These are the same people who travel with you to all those PTQs, and who spend the rigorous hours testing. They tell you that they want to be on the Pro Tour (as a rule of thumb, if you’re attending a PTQ you probably want to be on the Pro Tour), and that they have the “fire.” To illustrate my point, I’ll introduce a second friend of mine.

Once again, no name is needed. This friend read an article I wrote last summer, and was truly inspired by it. He told me that for the first time since he’d been playing, that he really did think that he had what it took to play on a higher level and that he had the ambition to get there. As a Magic writer, obviously there is nothing better than to hear this, especially coming from a friend. However, within a few months, he completely left the game and sold most of his cards. I haven’t heard from him since November, and I’m not sure that’s changing anytime soon.

Do you know what his problem was? He didn’t have the fire. He said he did, and maybe he even really did think that he had it, but he clearly didn’t. If you have the fire, you don’t ever think of quitting. The day you honestly contemplate giving up on Magic is the day the flame is snuffed out, and I firmly believe that. There is no middle ground here: if you do poorly at a PTQ or even a lowly FNM, you shouldn’t ever think to yourself “why do I keep playing this game?” Instead, you should think “man, why did that happen, and how can I do better next time?” Take it from me, a guy who has boatloads of confidence but still manages to pull off some really terrible beats at a tournament here and there: losing hardcore at a PTQ sucks, but it’s a far cry from never shuffling up a deck again.

A lot of players will tell you that the difference between pro play and PTQ play is skill, but I’d challenge that it’s quite a bit more than just that. The difference is resolve. A year ago I would lose and blame it on luck or really anything that avoided admitting that it was my fault, and it took one article comments thread last May to wake me up to the fact that I was totally and completely wrong. The verbal beatings I received in response to that article were among the worst I’ve ever gotten, and as a result I learned what I’d been doing wrong all along. Before that point, I just didn’t get it. I thought I had the fire, and I thought I was good enough. I didn’t, and I wasn’t.

Interestingly, the very next PTQ I played in I saw better results. I made mistakes, and when they were pointed out to me by friends and teammates, I took their advice and built on it. I went 4-2 at that PTQ, and went home feeling very good about how I’d played. The next PTQ after that, I was sitting in the finals with my Reveillark deck, the Pro Tour very much within my grasp.

In the third game of that match, I lost to plain bad luck. “But Chris, didn’t you just say that you shouldn’t blame loses on luck?” Yes, I did, but sometimes it’s hard to ignore when your deck just don’t allow you to get there. I was on the draw against Russell Slack’s UW Merfolk deck (a horrendous match-up), and I kept a seven that looked like this: Island, Mystic Gate, Island, Ponder, Path to Exile, Sower, Sower. I Pondered into a Mulldrifter, Pathed his Sygg on turn 2, and evoked the Mulldrifter on turn 3 to find my fourth land. I didn’t find it, and I still didn’t on the next turn. Or the next. Or the next.

I one hundred percent believe that had I drawn any land in my deck by the fourth turn (there were 26 in my deck and I had drawn six cards and dug down three at one point to find even just one land), I’d have won that game and gotten the blue envelope. But, sadly, I didn’t. I kept a good hand, and although I played very poorly in the semis, I had played quite tightly against Russ. I was ready to make the leap, but I failed to draw a land. That wasn’t inherently my fault, but to this day I look back at that match and feel very good just to have been that close. What others feel is “injustice” or “rotten luck” I now see as “proof” — and not proof that I’m good or something, but personal proof to myself that with focus, determination, and a little bit of luck you can reach the Pro Tour.

The instant I wrote that article in May and got torn apart by my readers, I saw a change in me: I had resolve. I wanted to be better, and I wanted to be on the Tour. So yes, skill is first and foremost the key aspect of becoming a pro. However, it isn’t enough on its own. I believe you truly need to have that moment of epiphany, that realization where you see things clearly. Gavin Verhey would describe it as “the aura,” but not because it makes you impervious and unbeatable because it is some magical entity — no, because you make yourself that way.

This past Saturday I watched Owen Turtenwald pilot a Zoo deck through a field filled with Martyr decks, reaching the top tables with ease. Now, it’s very possible that he played against zero Martyr decks (this is part of the “you need a little luck to win a PTQ” thing), but more than likely it’s because he sees the game on a different level that most of his opponents. Have you ever wondered how pro players always seem to be able to defeat seemingly impossible match-ups? How Faeries was still the best-performing deck in TSP/LOR Standard while the Red deck was reigning supreme? For them, winning each and every game of Magic is now just a matter of defeating your opponent, whereas with the PTQ player it is equal parts an inner conflict. Players on the PTQ circuit (myself certainly included) must be able to win bad match-ups and pilot their deck correctly, but first they must overcome an even greater opponent: themselves. I’ve spoken before about that mental barrier — everyone has it, and in order to reach the upper echelon of play you must learn to conquer it, and in turn conquer yourself.

For me, I attribute my 0-2 drop this past weekend totally to myself. In the first round I played against Faeries, and although I took him to three games, only a streak of luck got me there. Game 1 he had a strong Doom Blade-heavy draw, complete with Visions and Bitterblossom. In game 2 the board looked like this: on my side, I had a Wild Nacatl and a Knight of the Reliquary, and on his he had a Wild Nacatl and two Vedalken Shackles. Inside my next draw step, he tapped out to Vendilion Clique me, targeting the card I had just drawn (as it was the only card I had). I shipped it, and flashed an Ancient Grudge, allowing me to win the game.

Game 3 was where it got rough, as he had 4 Agony Warp, 4 Doom Blade, 4 Deathmark, and 3 Vedalken Shackles post-sideboard (Joe Bernal, the Faeries player, is a friend of mine and even personally told me that he was definitely well-prepared for this match-up — I’m inclined to agree). In this last game, he saw at least six or seven of the removal spells, and it was just enough. It was in this game that I made my error, though — one turn he had four mana and tapped two of it for Bitterblossom. I was holding onto a Helix, and I declined the chance to resolve it (I knew he didn’t have Mana Leak or Spell Snare, and letting Blossom resolve meant that a Spellstutter Sprite would be able to stop my spell). Two turns letter, when I was sitting on three life and racing him, I ran my Helix into the Spellstutter Sprite that I should’ve avoided. Granted, who is to say that the extra turn would’ve been enough to get me what I needed to win at that point, but the wrong play is still the wrong play.

I played Martyr in round 2, and although it went to three games there was little purpose in getting too bummed about the loss. While I did have a five-turn stretch in game 3 where a Thought Hemorrhage would’ve been literally enough to win the game, I didn’t draw it. And considering that there were only three in my entire deck, it’s not like I was getting unlucky — it was more like I just wasn’t getting lucky, and I believe there’s a distinct difference.

My problem? I played a Zoo deck in a field filled with Martyr and Scapeshift decks. That was my fault, and I take the blame for it. I got a bad beat or two, but instead of packing it up I’m back to testing and I want to win next weekend even more. Getting better at Magic is hard, and only those who truly want to can actually pull it off. You can’t “think about quitting,” and you can’t claim that you “have the fire” if you aren’t willing to put in the time.

There are many facets to improvement, but the greatest hurdle to overcome is the inability to admit your mistakes. While it wasn’t until later in the day that I chatted with Adrian Sullivan, I overheard him telling John Treviranus (those two also did just as poorly as I did, and seemed to be taking it just as well — yet more evidence, see?) the following: “people think that I make more mistakes than the other pros, but maybe it’s just because I talk about them so much?” I greatly admire Adrian’s attitude, and this is a pristine example of why. We’re talking about a guy who makes it a point to go around and tell everyone about his mistakes and blunders — not because he wants people to think he’s constantly on tilt or because he makes a zillion mistakes or something equally absurd, but because he just gets it. He knows that in order to constantly keep moving forward with his game, he needs to acknowledge when he fails so that he can correct it, and I’ve never seen someone so unafraid to do so, and even less so with such fervor. My hat’s off to you, Adrian, even for something you had no idea I had even heard!

Long story short, readers, the bottom line is this: don’t quit. And if you think you might want to quit, consider the true reasons why. If you want to quit because you’re starting a family, a new job, or just something else that demands your attention, then by all means give Magic one last farewell and live your life. But if you want to quit because you’re “sick” of it or because you’re tired of losing, the very worst thing you could possibly do would be to quit. Instead, reflect on yourself. Look for your mistakes, and try to understand why you’re losing. Topple that mental barrier. Find inner resolve.

Everyone wants to be good at something. Everyone wants to do great things and to feel like what they’ve done is something they can be proud of. To me, the desire to travel the world and play Magic is a little more than just a love of the game. No, it’s more of a love for the people you’ve met, the places you’ve been, and the experiences you’ve had because of Magic, and not just because of how fun it is to attack with Wild Nacatl. So if you want to quit, nothing is stopping you. However, keep in mind that when you turn your back on Magic, you lose more than just something to do on Friday nights — you might lose those people, too, and suddenly you might realize that it wasn’t just cards that made you enjoy playing the game for so long.

To that friend of mine who I haven’t heard from in ages, how is life without Magic? I don’t know about any of you, but I certainly don’t want to be without it. Because, frankly, if you have the fire…it’s not just a hobby, or even a profession: it’s a huge part of your life.

The best of luck, everyone.

Until next time…

Chris Jobin
Team RIW
Shinjutsei on MTGO