Weak Among the Strong: Are You Kidding Yourself?

Ask someone who just lost a game why they lost and the answers will vary. Manascrew is always popular, as is a bad matchup.”I lost the die roll” comes up a lot on the Pro Tour, especially when environments get particularly degenerate.”He drew more X” is another, whether X is Skullclamp, Disciple of the Vault, lands, burn, creatures, spells or whatever. Occasionally someone who is modest or who just played Kai Budde will say,”I got outplayed.” All of these answers are sometimes true, or at least partly true. But what should get said a lot more often is,”I was kidding myself, and if I hadn’t, I might have been able to win.”

Ask someone who just lost a game why they lost and the answers will vary. Manascrew is always popular, as is a bad matchup.”I lost the die roll” comes up a lot on the Pro Tour, especially when environments get particularly degenerate.”He drew more X” is another, whether X is Skullclamp, Disciple of the Vault, lands, burn, creatures, spells or whatever. Occasionally someone who is modest or who just played Kai Budde will say,”I got outplayed.”

All of these answers are sometimes true, or at least partly true. But what should get said a lot more often is,”I was kidding myself, and if I hadn’t, I might have been able to win.”

You’re kidding yourself when you hold on to a deck that was good the last time a format came around but isn’t good this time. You’re kidding yourself when you keep trying to make a bad deck good week after week, losing critical testing time. You’re kidding yourself when you don’t give other decks credit, and assume either that their good draws are their insane draws or else that they can’t really disrupt you. You’re kidding yourself when you lose to a misplay and convince yourself that it was due to something else.

The end result when you kid yourself is the same. You end up running a deck that isn’t ideal (either in general or for the specific metagame) or which you haven’t sufficiently tested, or you fail to correct a problem with your play. Either way, you don’t win the PTQ.

I’m going to start with some error of my own – the sort of error I see people kid themselves about all the time. The first is from a draft game with the match on the line and I was in excellent shape. My Arcbound Crusher was hitting double-digits courtesy of a Genesis Chamber, and I had Loxodon Warhammer online as well. My opponent held on for one attack with Awe Strike on the Crusher, but even that only let him make even trades on the rest of my team. On his turn he drew and said go.

I decided to put the game out of reach for him, put the Warhammer on my Crusher and swung in. Even if he had a great combat trick like Stir the Pride, I would gain a ton of life, kill a couple of his guys, and put a dozen or so +1/+1 counters on my token creatures. So instead he cast Soul Nova and got rid of my two most powerful cards in one shot. Given the sacrifices he’d had to make previously the game was still close, but in the end he won.

I’ve spoken with people after games like this, and what I usually hear is,”I got wrecked by Soul Nova,” or whatever the card was that they played into. But the truth is that I got wrecked by Soul Nova because I wanted to gain a bunch of life and didn’t think about what I’d seen in the draft. I’d passed a Soul Nova, and if I’d thought about that I would have sent in the Crusher on his own. It was still an awful situation for my opponent, but if he removes the Crusher from the game, the Warhammer would have been enough to take it comfortably.

A quite different example comes from Pro Tour: Kobe. Here I managed a tremendous feat of going 0-7 on the day, despite playing virtually the same deck as Rob Dougherty took to the top 8. Am I that much worse than Rob? No. Was Rob much luckier than I was? Again, no. Luck played a role, but it wasn’t the root cause.

The root cause is that I spent far too long trying to make U/W control a viable deck. It was okay against some of our starting gauntlet, beating mono-Red beats and doing very well against our first draft of mono-Black. But I kept coming up with reasons to keep testing it after it should have been discarded. Part was pride – I built it, I wanted to prove that it could be good. Part of it was some misguided concept of how the team was working – other decks had their champions, so we didn’t need me to be pushing one of them. And ultimately I kidded myself about how important it was to be play testing the deck for myself to make sure I knew it and its matchups inside out.

On the day of the Pro Tour I had plenty of excuses at hand. While Rob kept facing mirror matches where only he was boarding in Braids, I was facing Upheaval and Zombie Infestation. I played Dan Clegg when I was 0-2. The guy with one main deck Disrupt had it when I Mind Sludged him. Boo hoo.

But the reality is that I should have been playing mono-B for a couple of weeks longer than I did. That’s maybe a hundred matches unplayed. If I’d done that, I might have won my first match (which was fully in my hands to win) and spent the rest of the tournament like Rob, facing favorable matchups that I understood perfectly, instead of being in rogue-deck land playing a deck I only understood pretty well.

The same thing happened back during Rath Block constructed. I built a B/r deck with Shadow Weenies, Necrologia, Gravepact and Corpse Dance (plus creatures I could sacrifice, like Bottle Gnomes and Mogg Fanatic) that I really liked. The deck was pretty good, and I made T4 in a PTQ with it (only failing to make the finals because after drawing fifteen or so cards with Necrologia, I couldn’t find a single artifact removal spell), but it wasn’t the best deck. Can you imagine being on Darwin Kastle’s team and not playing a single sanctioned match with Survival of the Fittest, Recurring Nightmare, or Living Death?

Some years ago I wrote an article called,”The Danger of Cool Things,” in which I chastised Jamie Wakefield for allowing love of his Natural Order deck to distort his view of how good it really was vs. Pox. This time it’s Nate Heiss turn. Before I get going, I should note that this sort of bashing is, in my eyes, a mark of respect. I wouldn’t do it to someone who I thought hadn’t earned a good reputation among Magic players, both because it wouldn’t be nice and because the point is so much more powerful when you realize that good players do it too.

In his recent article for StarCityGames.com, Nate looks at the metagame for MD5 Constructed and puts up a sample combo deck. Now to be fair, Nate doesn’t claim this is a deck to beat – he specifically refers to it as,”a rather rough decklist with not-so-extensive testing.” But it still seems likely that Nate is making some of the classic mistakes that Magic players are prone to, especially with respect to pet cards and estimating how resilient their decks are.

I doubt Nate would deny that he has a penchant for falling in love with cards. If he does, just say”Manakin” to him and see if he can keep a straight face. Delving into a card can be great – you find out ways to use it that no one else has. Falling in love with a card is like falling in love with a person: It can blind you to faults and makes it hard to see when something better comes along.

In Nate’s article on which Fifth Dawn cards to trade for, he had this to say about Staff of Domination:”This card is basically the universal Engine. It should go in every combo deck outside of Desire. There will almost certainly be a combo deck after Fifth Dawn, so this is a safe trade.”

Every combo deck? Come on. The Staff has some useful utility as an expensive Tome plus Icy Manipulator, it pretty much wins the game if you can generate infinite mana, and it has some cool combo interaction with other cards, but it’s hardly something that every combo deck wants.

Nate’s deck has essentially two combos. One is the fairly standard Ironworks plus Myr Incubator to make a massive army. It’s almost not even a combo – more like mana acceleration and a big all-or-nothing threat, although Nate throws in Grinding Station to give it an extra combo feel. There are also some problems with it – it’s certainly not as easy as Nate suggests:

The first combo is to cast Myr Incubator and activate it for twenty (or more) on turn 3. You might have to wait a turn to attack with your tokens (or wait until end of turn to create them), but you could also get a Grinding Station into play and mill away their library ASAP. This combo is rather easy to pull off with Ironworks – just use a Pentad Prism or two and play the Ironworks out – sacrifice six artifacts (lands and the Ironworks included) to get twelve mana and do your thing.

Let’s see. Turn 2 Prism, turn 3 Ironworks. Now, assuming you hit all your land drops you have access to five mana (using both counters on the Prism), so you cast the Ironworks with one floating. You’ve got five artifacts to sacrifice (Prism, three lands, Ironworks) so that gets you up to eleven mana. In other words, you don’t quite have enough. You’ve got to wait until turn 4 before you can actually try to go off. It’s possible for the deck to cast and activate the Incubator on turn 3, but then only by doing something like casting a Prism on turn 2 and then immediately burning it to cast either another Prism or a Guardian Idol. Other Ironworks decks can go off on turn 3 with the right draw because they have zero- and one-mana artifacts, but even those decks”merely” claim to go off on turn 4 with a good draw.

The”real” combo uses Nate’s pet engine card:

[I]t is essentially a three card combo – Doubling Cube, Clock of Omens, and Staff of Domination. This second combo is far more difficult to pull of than the first, but it illustrates the point that these things can be done… Oh you think this might take awhile to set up? Well, you can reliably pull this second combo off reliably by turn 5. It may not be turn 3, but it is still rather good. Draw your deck, get as much mana as you want, deck your opponent, then Fireball them.

What are the clues that Nate may be kidding himself? It’s not using”reliably” twice in the sentence where he tells you this deck will go off on turn 5. It’s in the claim itself and in some specific aspects of the deck.

First of all, let’s look at the search. Three-card combos are never easy to find, and decks built around them need pretty good search. When Illusions-Donate (a two card combo) was a major force in Extended, the mono-U version used Intuition, Merchant Scroll, Accumulated Knowledge, and sometimes other search like Frantic Search, Brainstorm, or Stroke of Genius. Nate has four copies each of Fabricate and Serum Visions. Both are fine search cards, especially since Serum Visions will come first (finding something you need) and then Fabricate is a tutor, but even if you can cast them reliably, there will certainly be games where you can’t find your combo. Put simply, no combo can be set up reliably by turn 5 when it requires three specific cards and you have this level of search power.

But hang on a second – it gets worse. Spells cost mana and colored spells cost colored mana. Nate’s deck has only four lands that produce U and only four other sources of U – the Pentad Prisms. Four sources is clearly unreliable and eight isn’t rock-solid for your early game. Most Ironworks decks I’ve seen use Chromatic Sphere to help with early colored spells for precisely this reason. Nate’s deck should at the very least replace his Guardian Idols with Talismans so that he might cast a Talisman and then Serum Visions on turn 2, or at least be more likely to cast Fabricate on turn 3. It still wouldn’t be completely reliable, but twelve sources is much better than eight.

Next, there’s the issue of whether this is really a three-card combo or four, requiring the Ironworks. Let’s give the deck a luck boost and assume it gets some Blue mana sources and one of its mana rampers, but let’s also insist that it has to use search to find the combo, rather than just drawing it the hard way. That would make the start of the game look something like:

Turn 1: Seat of the Synod, cast Serum Visions. (Six cards left in hand, assuming we went first.)

Turn 2: Land, cast Guardian Idol. (Five cards left in hand.)

Turn 3: Land, cast Clock of Omens. (Four cards left in hand.)

Turn 4: Land, cast Fabricate for Cube or Staff, cast Doubling Cube. (Three cards left in hand.)

Turn 5: Land, cast Staff of Domination with three available mana. (Two cards left in hand.)

In this imagined start, we’re missing no land drops (despite running only twenty land), hitting a mana ramper on turn 2 and tapping out on turns 3 and 4. If the mana ramper had been a Pentad Prism, we’d have had to use it up by the end of turn 4 in order to cast Fabricate, Clock and Cube, leaving us with just two available mana on turn 5. Without a mana ramper, the combination can only be assembled by turn 5 if we can draw them all with just one Serum Visions to help.

Now turn 6 comes and we go off. We lay another land, put seven mana into our pool and activate the cube, going from seven mana down to four and then up to eight. Then we tap the Staff and the Clock to untap the Cube and use it again, going down to five and then up to ten. And then what? We can untap the Staff, but that doesn’t do us much good, since we’ve had to tap everything else. As Nate says, with two Staffs (which we could have cast on turn 5) we could go infinite, but that’s still four cards. (In fact it’s worse, because it’s much harder to find two copies of a single card than one copy each of two different cards.)

The deck can actually go off on turn 5, but it requires some amazing draws to do so, and is certainly not a”three-card combination” that can be reliably assembled on turn 5.

Then there’s the deck’s alleged resistance to artifact hate. Nate doesn’t claim that the second combination is resistant – and a good thing too, since it clearly isn’t. The whole combination has to be assembled bit by bit and then sit there unmolested. A single spell that says”destroy target artifact” shuts it down. But Nate claims that the Ironworks/Incubator combo is very resistant:

There is the argument that the plethora of artifact hate in the metagame will help keep the Combo decks at bay. I never heard a better argument for printing a card like Oxidize. It is possible that this will be the case, but in the Incubator Combo, Oxidize would not even put a hitch in the combo unless you were killing an artifact in response to the playing of Ironworks… and that will only buy you a turn unless you have more artifact removal where that came from. I’m not saying that artifact removal doesn’t hurt the combo decks, but it sure doesn’t hurt them as much as many would prefer.

The problem with this reasoning is that it assumes that an opponent will sit idly by while you play artifact lands, Pentad Prisms, and Guardian Idols until it’s finally time for you to go off, and then complain that their Shatters were useless against your combo. Problem is, that won’t happen past round one, if then. Players running decks like this have to assume that Oxidize and Detonate are going to take out their first land, rather than waiting around for a”juicy” target, and that Viridian Shaman will happily play an echo-free Avalanche Rider. Meanwhile, if there is a Blue control deck it will be running Annul, and Black decks will be paying B to put your best artifact in the graveyard where it belongs. On turn 1,”best artifact” will either be a land or a combo piece – either way, it’ll be the one you didn’t want to lose.

Kai Budde recent Ironworks decklist addresses this problem with card drawing, e.g. Thoughtcast and Thirst for Knowledge. His plan versus decks packing lots of one-for-one artifact removal is simply to let them trade one-for-one while he outdraws them. He has ten mana-rampers (six Talismans plus a Prism) that provide Blue mana to help cast them even if his opponent Detonates or Crumbles his first land. Whether or not this plan works is something only testing and practical play can resolve, but Kai recognizes the danger and has a plan to combat it.

One last time, I’m not trying to be harsh on Nate. I hope my earlier examples made it clear that I’ve done far worse kidding of myself than I think he’s done here. To this day I sometimes catch myself blaming some match loss to factor X when the reality is that I made a mistake in play or deck construction that cost me. Kidding yourself is hard to avoid. The best way to resist this disease is to make a commitment to ruthless honesty with yourself and then look out for the following symptoms:

  • The card or deck you have an emotional attachment to seems better to you than it does to everyone else. A lot better.

  • You’ve tested your deck a large enough number of times to be statistically reliable but you’re convinced that its”real” win/loss percentage is much better than your playtest results show. Your wins in testing are due to your deck having good matchups or to you playing it well, while your losses are due to factors other than the deck or your skill.

  • Your deck seems immune to hate — with”seems” coming from a source other than play testing a significant number of games against good opponents.

  • Kai Budde has tested a matchup and says that the deck with lots of artifact hate has”no chance” against the combo deck with lots of card drawing, and without a single game of testing you think he’s probably wrong. (Yeah, that’s me.)

If you find yourself doing any of these things, you may be kidding yourself. Unfortunately, there are no meetings for Kidders Anonymous, but once you’ve admitted you have a problem you’re halfway to solving it.

Hugs ’til next time,