Weak Among the Strong: Owning Your Mistakes

For anyone wondering who the heck Chad Ellis is, I was once a writer of some repute, with articles on the Dojo, StarCity, Mindripper, Brainburst, and the Sideboard. Along the writing path, I managed to qualify for the Pro Tour through a few PTQs, and then finally gravy-trained with an eighth-place finish at Pro Tour: Barcelona. Now I’m finally joining StarCityGames.com on a more serious basis, as my Weak Among the Strong column finds a new home here.

Before the article starts, a bit of an introduction: Over the past several years, I’ve written a few articles for StarCityGames.com as a friendly volunteer, played in Star City’s Multiplayer Invitational (in which I think I killed the Ferrett and know that I killed Randy Buehler with his own Dominated creature), and I’ve always considered myself a friend of the site. Now I’m finally joining on a more serious basis, as my Weak Among the Strong column finds a new home here.

For anyone wondering who the heck Chad Ellis is, I was once a writer of some repute, with articles on the Dojo, StarCity, Mindripper, Brainburst, and the Sideboard. Along the writing path, I managed to qualify for the Pro Tour through a few PTQs, and then finally gravy-trained with an eighth-place finish at Pro Tour: Barcelona.

Then I disappeared.

Real life got in the way, as I took an amazing management job in Germany, building and leading a product marketing team for Siemens Mobile. I managed to do some neat things like being quoted in Vogue, GQ, and a few other magazines that should never talk to a jeans-and-tee-shirts geek like me. I won a Silver Lion at Cannes and even hired Christina Aguilera to play at my launch party. Even better, I got to lead (and, in about half the cases, hire) a team of eighteen of the finest professionals I’ve ever had the honor to work with, as well as some of the world’s top marketing agencies. All in all, not a bad gig.

But you know what? I’m a gamer… And it’s time to come home. At Worlds in Berlin, I met up with Rob Dougherty, the founder of Your Move Games, and told him I was coming back to Boston soon. I mentioned that what I’d really like to do would be to develop, produce, and sell my own games but couldn’t see how to make it work on my own. Rob’s jaw dropped as he told me he had the same dream.

Go figure… Two guys like us both want to produce our own games? Why was I surprised?

But anyway, we decided to do it. I’d saved enough money from my Siemens job and Rob has the income from his stores and events, so we can each devote ourselves full time to building a new business. And you can be sure I’ll be plugging our upcoming games here!

Meanwhile, I’m going to try to get back on the Pro Tour. And with these articles, I’ll be bringing you along with me. Sometimes I’ll be writing general strategy – how I think a player should think about the game, train, etc., in order to reach their peak. Other times, as PTQs come and go, I’ll tell you exactly what I’m doing and why – decks, sideboards, draft strategies, tournament reports. I hope you’ll enjoy and learn from them.

We’ll start with one of the most important – and psychologically difficult – tasks a player faces:

Owning Your Mistakes

“There’s an old saying in Tennessee – I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee – that says, fool me once, shame on – shame on you. Fool me – you can’t get fooled again.”

-George W. Bush, Nashville, Tenn., Sept. 17, 2002

There is a version of this expression that applies to mistakes. "Make a mistake once, shame on me. Make the same mistake twice, shame on…Well, shame on me again, but a much bigger shame." I think George W. Bush would approve.

Magic is a game of decisions, which means it is a game of mistakes. And most people make the same mistakes over and over again because they don’t take the time to identify them, understand them and ultimately own them. Making the same mistakes over and over again means that you don’t get better, and it even means that people who know you and your mistakes can work you over easily.

(If you think about it, I’m sure you know of a few players who you almost always beat, in part because they make the same predictable mistakes so you’re able to put them into positions where they can and will hand you the game.)

As mentioned above, I recently got back into serious Magic after nearly two years of working in Germany. My first major event was Grand Prix: Oakland, for which I’d won three byes at a trial at Your Move Games. I was cautiously optimistic; Limited is my best format, I had three byes, and I was pretty familiar with Mirrodin from online drafting. Darksteel was another story, of course, and I knew I was rusty, but it was about as good a situation as I could ask for.

I’ll now take you through some of the mistakes I made in that event that in all likelihood prevented me from qualifying for the Pro Tour at my first attempt.

Starting with my Sealed deck on day one, I made two mistakes in card selection – one big, and one small but still real.

I won’t go into the whole card pool, but the main deck (both strategy and 90% of card choices) was pretty clear. I had only two broken cards in my entire deck – two copies of Test of Faith – and the only other strength of the deck were the fairly good Blue flyers (two Neurok Prodigy and a Somber Hoverguard). I splashed Red for Shatter and Shrapnel Blast, but the base of the deck was going to be a quick evasion assault backed up by solid guys on the ground. Ideally, I’d force a combat clash where either an opponent blocked one of my fliers or I blocked a big ground guy with either Razor Golem or Yotian Soldier, make my guy big with Test of Faith, and win the race.

Not the best plan in the world against the broken decks, but it’s at least a plan that I’ve played before in other sets.

Mistake number one: Darksteel Pendant over Goblin War Wagon.

This is the big one. I wanted Darksteel Pendant because I was playing three colors, because I had some affinity, and because I knew in many games I would really need to find a copy of Test of Faith. All good reasons. But not only is Goblin War Wagon a better card in most Sealed decks, it was better in mine because my deck had to win quickly. I wasn’t a control deck that could count on clogging up the game and then winning with card advantage over many turns as I put land on the bottom of my deck. I was short on bombs as well as answers for my opponent’s bombs, so I was playing on a luxury I didn’t have.

I also think I was making one of the most common beginner mistakes – being too generous on utility cards. Beginners will often play a card because it does something useful, even if that something is pretty minor. That’s because they don’t think of the steep cost of playing a card – the card slot itself and the mana to cast it. Stronger players treat cards and mana like the scarce resources they are.

Mistake number two: Tooth of Chiss-Goria over Vulshok Gauntlets

This one is a bit closer, since in some decks I think the Tooth is better than the Gauntlets. The Tooth gives me a chance to trick people, especially since it’s often quite natural to send in non-tapping attackers like my Razor Golem and Yotian Soldier even if there’s a blocker who can "handle" them.

("Block your Yotian Soldier with my Neurok Spy" can actually happen when you’re a U/W deck, you’re in a damage race, and there was no risk in sending the Soldier and thus no reason for your opponent to suspect a trick.)

The Tooth can also throw off race calculations, which can be very powerful when your deck wants to win with evasion.

However, once I correct the first mistake and put in the Goblin War Wagon, I have three creatures that negate the disadvantage of the Gauntlets (Yotian Soldier and Razor Golem don’t tap to attack, and the War Wagon’s untap cost doesn’t change if it’s wearing Gauntlets), giving me the very real possibility of dominating the ground with it.

It’s also important that my deck had no late-game cards…and the Gauntlets are very powerful in the late game. (This is a scarce resource argument – even a fast Sealed deck often benefits from having one card that is broken in the late game.)

Now on to the rounds. I played pretty well in general, and my deck was kind to me, enabling me to stay "on plan." I held the ground, put pressure on in the air, and drew one of my Test of Faiths often enough that I was able to pull a lot of games out of my opponent’s control. I lost only one match during the Sealed deck rounds – but I made a very common and important mistake when doing so.

I had Razor Golem and Test of Faith in hand, and a Prodigy and Hoverguard in play. My opponent had a few guys on the ground capable of doing seven points of total damage and I was pretty sure he was out of gas based on the play over the past few turns. I was at fourteen life and he was within a couple of turns of dying to my flyers.

So I did the most natural thing: I swung in for five, putting him on a one-turn clock, and played Razor Golem. My opponent drew, blinked, tapped my Golem with an entwined Blinding Beam and took away half of my life total, leaving me with one turn to draw a creature, removal spell, or artifact (which would at least let me return my Prodigy to my hand and recast it).

I drew a basic land and lost.

Now don’t get me wrong. Playing Razor Golem isn’t necessarily a mistake at all. But there are several plays I can consider at this point, and I made my play on autopilot. Some other possibilities worth considering:

  • Attack with the fliers and not play the Golem.

  • Attack with one flier and hold the other back, intending to block and play Test of Faith.

  • Play the Golem and hold my whole team back, intending to push through with Golem/Test of Faith.

None of these are very natural plays – but the point is that when the game is close to ending, it is often possible to break things down into specific cards. At that point, you have to ask yourself whether your play changes if your opponent draws (or is holding) one of the top commons or any card you’ve seen in a previous game. I should at the very least have taken the time to realize that if his next card was Blinding Beam, I would be best off attacking and not playing my Golem. Then I can look at whether this option is best if his next draw is a flier, an Arrest, a hasted creature, some powerful piece of equipment, and so on, and so on. In the end, I suspect I would have made the same play, but at least I would have done it for the right reasons.

Now, on to day two. My first deck was pretty good, and opening Loxodon Warhammer helped. A 2-1 record put me in fourteenth place after eleven rounds – solid position for top 8 or – almost as good – a finish high enough to re-qualify for the Pro Tour. (As it turns out, 2-1 would have Q’d me, while 2-0-1 was needed for top 8.)

My plan was simple: Given the chance, I would draft Affinity, with White equipment or heavy-Black as my backups, as those were all decks I felt pretty comfortable with.

My opening pack had Somber Hoverguard as the only good affinity card, along with Barter in Blood, Promise of Power, and Consume Spirit.

I made a rookie mistake and took the Promise of Power.

Rookie mistake, part one: Taking a card that looks like it might be a bomb but you don’t know is a bomb.

Even experienced players will sometimes not know the true strength of a card – especially if that card is rare, and there can be a lot of psychological pressure on people who know that others will be able to second-guess their choices. Let them. Don’t second-guess yourself and take a card on the grounds that it might be insane. I looked at Promise, remembered some references to it as a potential power card, thought about how a 3/3 flier for five is often a first-pick, thought about how I love drawing cards and thought about how I’d hate to blow a pick because of my inexperience with the set.

None of these are good enough reasons, especially since Barter in Blood is probably a better card anyway. Which brings us to point two…

Rookie mistake, part two: Not thinking about the pack you’re sending.

Taking the Hoverguard sends the next player a pack with no good affinity cards. It’s likely that I can keep cutting affinity, so that he’ll never see a first-pick affinity card and maybe not even a second-pick one. That will set me up for good affinity picks in the second pack.

Taking Promise tells him nothing (since it’s a rare) and hands him two powerful Black cards. If he passes them both, the next player sees them. If either one of them takes them, I’ll be fighting Black in the second set of packs. And if neither does, I’ll probably end up fighting it in the third set of packs, since the Consume Spirit could keep going to sixth, seventh or even eighth pick.

And this is even worse, since…

Rookie mistake, part three: Making a heavy color commitment long before it’s necessary.

Promise has triple-Black in its casting cost. That means running at least ten swamps to be happy with it, which means all sorts of horrible commitments far too early in a draft. Somber Hoverguard, by contrast, has just a single blue in its casting cost, making it easy to run whether Blue becomes a primary color or not. Your ideal first pick is an artifact – but in any case, the difference between U and BBB is obscene. BBB is something you don’t want to touch until you already know you’re going to be running lots and lots of swamps.

The result was predictable. As a result of my commitment to Black, I had to choose second-best cards at least three times during the draft. I fought two other Black players, including one close to my right, so I didn’t get the benefit of all the Darksteel Black. My mana base ended up awkward, and despite my best efforts I ended up holding Promise of Power in one game and being unable to cast it due to having only two Black sources. Instead of 2-0-1 to make top 8, 2-1 to be back on the Pro Tour, or 1-2 to pick up some money and a Pro Tour point, I went 0-3 and finished 39th.

Hopefully, having owned the mistakes that put me there, I won’t make them again.

Hugs ’til next time,