When Things Go Badly Wrong

Craig “The Professor” Jones entered this year’s English Nationals as the probable favorite. Unfortunately for Mr Helix, things went very badly. Today’s article explores the nature of “Playing on Tilt,” with reference to his horrendous day at the office. Are you a player that succumbs to emotion? Are you a player that lets the heart override the head? Never fear. Craig Jones can help.

In which we find our hero drunk and maudlin in a tavern far from Magical realms. After a few beers too many he recounts the sorry tale of his Nationals, offers some dubious advice on how to deal with the dreaded tilt, puts forward his nominations for the Hall of Fame, and then promptly throws up in a bucket. How the mighty have fallen.

Shh, I’m in hiding.

Actually, I’m in the middle of a short (very — honest!) break from the game, for reasons that will become apparent. I wasn’t sure I’d have anything to write about, but then I noticed Flores and Remie got an article out of their Hall of Fame nominations. In true craven capitalistic style, I decided I wanted my piece too. As it didn’t seem like that would stretch to a full article, I thought I’d finally relate the sorry tale of woe of my Nationals, for the catharsis at least… and I may as well give the sorry maggot-ridden carcass that is Coldsnap another good kicking while I’m at it.

In truth, this is going to be a bit of a mixed bag; in fact, it’s probably worse, as what I’m mainly going to be talking about is the dreaded “L” word. Yep, that’s losing. It happens to all of us, although we don’t like to think about it. I know it’s a bit odd… this is a strategy article, and you probably want to hear about how to win, but bear with me and I hope it will make sense.

In case you haven’t realised, this is a fairly dead time of year. Nationals is over for most of us, and Time Spiral isn’t out for another month. If you want advice on Standard I’d go and check out the Japanese or Dutch Nationals decks. If you want advice on Coldsnap drafting … then you’re certifiable. Save your money. Real Magic will return in a few weeks, hopefully, with Time Spiral.

Sorry, couldn’t resist. Coldsnap’s like a body on the ground after a swift kick in the nuts. You know they’re down and no longer a danger, but you just have to get in that stomp on the head. It’s completely unnecessary, but damn it feels good. Aah…

Yes, I’m a Coldsnap hater. Actually, that’s a bit harsh on the poor set. It’s like the poor kid that gets pushed onto the team. It’s not his fault. He doesn’t want to be there, but you still want to rip his head off after he screws up for the umpteenth time.

Recently, I covered the Irish Nationals. You can find the coverage here at CCGIreland.com (Thanks to Dave Kearney for uploading it). The Coldsnap draft pretty much destroyed the tournament, as the top tables collapsed into “collect-me-up” silliness. Anyone trying to draft “fair” was just destroyed. A collection of the better Limited players couldn’t even muster an overall positive record. I watched a feature match in which John Larkin was hit for somewhere in the region of half his life points or more on turns 3 and 4 respectively.

The round 7 match between John McCarthy and Conor Harding was the most telling. At the time, both players were topping the standings with perfect records. McCarthy had a mono-Green deck featuring six Surging Mights. He also had multiple trampling two-mana drops in Bull Aurochs and the normally very risky Sheltering Ancient. Harding had a Green-Black snow deck with lots of regenerators.

Game 1 was the Coldsnap classic of turn over the top four cards of my library to see if I win or not. Game 3 was even worse, as it dragged in the whole “what happens if I forget cumulative upkeep” mess. I’m not even certain what the official ruling on this is now. At one point it was the permanent stayed around and you got a warning, then it was sort of changed to you had to sacrifice, but I don’t think this is official and so it gives rise to all kinds of judging consistency issues.

To me, this match summed up everything that is wrong with Coldsnap draft. From a strategic point of view, the most important aspects of the game were the top four cards of someone’s library or whether someone remembered to pay a cost during their upkeep. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem very skilful to me.

In a different context, Coldsnap would have been a nice little distraction. How they handled snow was very innovative, and the “collect-me” theme probably works for casual play. Unfortunately, someone decided to force the set onto players by including it in both Nationals and for the Top 8 of PTQs, an environment I don’t believe it’s suited for.

Losing to ripple nonsense in a casual game down the pub is fun, as one of the cool things about Magic is when you get to see decks do degenerate things.

However, losing to ripple nonsense in the final of a PTQ or some other high quality tournament, where there are considerable sums of money on the line, is not fun.

But that’s enough. I better stop now. There’s an eyeball hanging out of the socket.

So, about losing.

I’m sorry, but I’m now about to give you some bad news.

At some point in the near future you are going to lose a game, or a match even, to a player that isn’t as good as you… and there isn’t a single thing you can do about it.

It’s the aspect of Magic we don’t like to talk about. We’d rather think of Magic as this fantastical skill-based game, where every correct decision is correspondingly rewarded with a result. I’m sorry, but life ain’t like that.

Actually, it’s one of the aspects of human nature I never quite understand. Given how random the world actually is, expecting good decisions to always be rewarded and then being surprised (and hurt) when they aren’t seems like a kind of lunacy to me. Sure, most of the time good decision = reward is true. But, “most of the time” does not equal “always,” and that’s an important distinction.

It can be dangerous to think along these lines. There is a strong temptation to stick your head in the sand — ostrich-like — and blame all losses on external factors. It wasn’t my fault I lost, I was mana-screwed / mana-flooded / my opponent was a cheesy top-decking @^&$. Players who only do this are often lost causes. By refusing to acknowledge their own mistakes they will continue to lose without really understanding why.

It is important to look back on games, especially the ones you lost, and try to work out what you could have done differently. It doesn’t matter how many mistakes you thought your opponent made, the important thing is how many did you make. One of the more frustrating aspects of Magic is looking back at a game, seeing your opponent make tons of mistakes all over the place, and knowing that you never had the opportunity to punish them for their bad play.

That frustration has ended more than a few good players’ careers. The story is fairly clichéd. Person puts the effort in, gets good at the game, gets their breakout finish. At this point they’re invincible. They’re like Neo from The Matrix. They can see the inner workings, everything, and the poor scrubs around them haven’t a chance.

Then they lose.

It doesn’t matter how much better you are than someone else (or think you are better — that’s another subject, and one that has already been covered by Pat Chapin), Magic is a card based game, and as such contains a hefty element of luck. Someone else will beat you from time to time. You will lose games. You will lose matches. You will even have those exasperating days when absolutely nothing goes right, and it feels like the day will probably end up with you being mauled by an escaped lion or something, because your luck has just been That Bad.

Let me tell you about one of those days. Sit back, put your feet up, and have a laugh at my expense, as I regale the story of my Nationals in all its ghastly detail.

This year, I was probably the favorite for the English Nationals. Honolulu notwithstanding, I’ve picked up consistent finishes on the Pro Tour over the last year or so. When you also take into account that two of the favorites, Sam Gomersall and Quentin Martin, can’t make the tournament and it looks really good for me.

I was even moderately secure with my choices a week before the event. Normally paranoia and panic makes the last week a frantic nightmare while I try and decide on a deck choice (and usually audible into something truly atrocious). This year, I felt pretty good. The Standard metagame was (and still appears to be) completely wide open. In that environment I wanted to go with something familiar and also powerful, and had already decided on Stuart Wright‘s listing of Vore that was first talked about here. The only changes I made were to replace two of the Threads of Disloyalty with Spell Snare. It was odd. Originally, I wasn’t a big fan of Vore. It seemed horribly inconsistent. Stuart is a master of tuning decks, and the Vore deck had performed well enough online in testing that I knew I was going to play it weeks before the event.

Unfortunately, the first three rounds were a horror story. As a land destruction deck, Vore really wants to go first and it doesn’t want to be playing against decks that feature fast monsters backed up with counter-magic. Hmm… I bet you can guess where this is going…

First off, I lost every single dice roll. Yeah, it’s a minor complaint, but give me some slack. Winding up the bitter rant is an art in itself.

In round 1, I faced off against Christopher Harrold with a U/G aggro deck. I was a little worried about this matchup as it features — you guessed it — little guys backed up with counter-magic. I got bashed, but I’m not sure it’s as bad as I first thought. Game 1 I dealt with the early threats, and was given a couple of windows of opportunity to turn the game around with Wildfire, but couldn’t actually find one. Game 2 was equally frustrating, as my draw stuttered.

It does, however, give me a very good example of how reflection can sometimes be dangerous.

The game state at the end is a clear race situation. It boils down to the surprise factor of a second Magnivore in hand against a Jitte’d up Sakura-Tribe Elder and other monsters. Gaining control isn’t an option. I have to race by connecting with both Magnivores for more life than he can gain back off his Jitte. There are other sorceries in my hand, but they are mostly irrelevant apart from a Volcanic Hammer. I mention the Hammer as I did consider throwing at my opponent’s head the turn earlier, but chose to save it to remove any potential blocker for when I make the second Magnivore on the turn before he kills me. Unfortunately, he made a Hammer-proof Cytoplast Root-Kin to block the second Magnivore, and my draw was the rather frustrating Compulsive Research. I say frustrating because it would have made the unblocked Magnivore large enough to win the race on top of the three damage from the Hammer.

So yeah, I screwed up. Looking back, there’s another alternative that would have taken the match into a deciding game. I should have Hammered him to the dome the turn earlier.

Except the alternative is still the wrong play, even though it would have saved the game and possibly the match. It only looks like the correct play with the benefit of hindsight. When I had the choice of Hammering my opponent, there were two pieces of information unavailable to me at the time. First, I didn’t know my opponent was going to summon a 4/4 blocker, and second, I didn’t know I was going to draw a Compulsive Research that would effectively make my Magnivore +3 power.

There are times (usually desperate!) when you have to base a play on the hope that the top card of your library is exactly what you need. My Lightning Helix from Honolulu is probably one of the more famous examples. However, this isn’t one of those times. The game is going badly, and I’m trying to steal it on the back of a hasty second Magnivore. The Hammer is there to clear out any freshly summoned blocker. Unfortunately, he made a 4/4 Root-Kin and the plan failed. It doesn’t make it a bad plan. Imagine if I’d have gone with the alternative, only for my opponent to draw something like a Birds of Paradise, and then I draw a land instead of the “Giant Growth”-providing Compulsive Research. I’d have felt pretty stupid then.

Looking back at games is important, but there are occasions when you should realise that the correct play doesn’t always give the correct result. Conversely, there are also times when bad play will be successful. The important thing is to ignore this and always try to make the correct play. In the long term it will reap more benefits. Failing to do so is one of the symptoms of “tilt.”

However, you have to be careful that your concept of “correct” play is indeed correct. Stubbornness can also be fatal. If you persist with a strategy, either in Constructed or Limited, and it continues to fail, then you should be asking yourself whether your strategy is actually correct. This tends to happen a lot in Constructed, where players are slow to react to changes in metagame. They feel aggrieved at losing to some janky deck and blame it on luck, when in truth the rogue deck just happens to be a better Constructed deck. This is another symptom of this dreaded “tilt” I’ll talk about later.

Round 2 is an even worse matchup, as I’m paired against Lee Garner with Sea Stompy. Game 1 I lose the dice roll, and I can’t keep up with a very aggressive draw backed up with counter magic. Game 2 I think I’m okay, as I can get any early Magnivore down with Spell Snare backup. Unfortunately, he has a Voidslime instead of Mana Leak or Remand. He also has a second one when I try to Wildfire, and I start to get that feeling it’s going to be one of those frustrating days. A second Wildfire resolves, but then my deck throws a whole series of useless draws at me and he recovers to beat me to death.

I did make a fairly bad mistake near the death, when I failed to spot he only had one Forest and missed an opportunity to kill a Kird Ape with Pyroclasm, using Eye of Nowhere on the Ape instead. It had no bearing on the game, as Garner drew a second Ape. It would have bought an extra turn, but as the top card of library was a land the result would still have been the same.

A mistake like that does make me look back very carefully at the games. Was there really nothing I could have done, or am I playing sub-optimally and not spotting it? Those kind of mistakes are usually warning signs, but in this case I’m fairly sure there wasn’t much I could have done to avoid going straight into the 0-2 bracket.

It didn’t get much better as I was paired against Noel Bresland and another fast creature deck, this time White Weenie backed up with Mana Leaks. Losing the dice roll in the first game was again crucial, as it made the difference between turning the game round and, as actually happened, being reduced to exactly zero life. The next two games seemed to be going much better, until I hit the most ridiculous mana flood. Bresland was facing a lethal Magnivore after mana screw, and my spells had battered his manabase. A succession of chump blocks kept him in the game, and then he was able to get enough mana to drop an Eight-and-a-Half-Tails and protect it. I was still confident, as his mana was tied up every turn just to stay alive. His grip on the game was tenuous at best. Virtually any spell in my deck would crack his flimsy defence.

Except I didn’t draw a spell. For around eight or nine turns. It was completely unreal. I’ve been flooded in plenty of games, but to go that amount of turns without drawing anything other than land was insane. Actually, I tell a lie. I did draw a Sleight of Hand that revealed… you guessed it… two land.

Generally, people like to get off to a flier. I’d stalled, watched as the engine blew up, and then been struck with a rogue meteor. So it was going to be one of those days.

It’s actually odd. Normally, when something this catastrophic happens, my immediate reaction is to think I’d either screwed up on deck selection or turned up with the brain locked on scrub-mode. In this case I’m fairly certain there wasn’t anything I could have done play-wise. I’d also have turned up with Vore again without a second’s hesitation (actually, I should have played Solar Flare, but at the time the deck was just starting to break online and I didn’t quite appreciate exactly how good it was. Seeing it take five of the Top 8 slots in the Irish Nationals was enough to make me think it was probably the best deck pre-Coldsnap). Stuart Wright went 3-0 with Vore, but I honestly think if he’d faced my matchups with my draws he would also be right down in the sewers with a smelly fat 0-3. Sometimes you just have one of those days.

It didn’t pick up with the RGD draft either. The one consolation with going 0-3 is it should put me in a weak pod. Except the bottom pod also contained Chris Clapton, my team-mate from Charleston and a former National team member. Also on my left was Eliot (I want to say Coen, but your memory goes to hell once you get past thirty, and I was never much good with names in the first place — sorry Eliot), a young kid from Manchester and someone I’d tip for the future… except all our good kids hit a certain age and vanish in a haze of drugs, beer, and women.

I have some very simple draft rules for RGD. Generally, I take Green and Red, and either move into Blue early for Izzet and Simic goodness, or hold out for the Rakdos removal if Blue isn’t open. In my experience, White decks don’t win unless you open Glare, and I don’t touch it. Unfortunately, it seemed like the players on either side of me also had the same rules. I thought I might have put Eliot in White, as I passed him Oathsworn Giant and then a couple of Screeching Griffin. He didn’t bite however, and I knew I was toast when the first Guildpact booster passed back contained a Graven Dominator. Dissension rescued me in the form of a couple of Wrecking Balls as I moved into a fourth color (G/R/u/b). My removal wasn’t bad, but the creature base was an anaemic thirteen creatures, two of which were Sandstorm Eidolons. It wasn’t a good deck, but the boosters had been horrible so there was a good chance everyone would be in the same boat.

The only real piece of luck I had was to pick up the first bye, but then normal service was resumed as I had a frustrating game against Tom Law. I think this round annoyed me the most. The horrific flood in round 3 was bad, but at least Noel is a friend. Having someone tell you it’s “karma” because they can cast double Red, double White, double Blue, and oh why not throw in a few Green and Black spells at will, while you have to mulligan and spend the game scratching for lands is very irritating.

But in this case, this is clearly the “tilt” factor taking effect. I was unhappy, as the fourth loss meant my Nationals was now effectively over, but it was also because I lost to a deck with a manabase that even the French would be scared of. When players take that many risks with their mana, it is easy to think they “deserve” to get screwed.

But remember… the world isn’t a fair place.

Tom Law went on to 3-0 the pod, and on reflection it probably isn’t as surprising as it first seems. We were a seven-man pod with a weak set of boosters. Under those conditions, power is much better than consistency. Law’s manabase was horrible, but as the other decks were too weak to really exploit any hitches in his draw, he had time to let powerful cards like Graven Dominator, Excruciator, and Supply / Demand dominate. I don’t think he would have got away with it normally, but for this pod it was correct.

I won round 6, and then it was the Coldsnap draft. After all my misgivings, the draft actually went insanely well. A draft always goes well if you find yourself asking, “how much removal is too much removal?” I had twelve removal spells: two Krovikan Rot, two Skred, two Chill to the Bone, two Surging Flames, and four Feast of Flesh. With removal heavy decks there can be problems of not having enough creatures, and also running out of card advantage as the removal only trades one-for-one. Even these holes were plugged, as I had two Survivor of the Unseen (a card that still isn’t drafted highly enough) and a Grim Harvest.

In short, it was exactly the kind of deck I wanted for taking out my frustrations on the rest of the world.

And then I was denied even that pleasure.

Pete Norris was 5-2 after the first day. My initial plan, as he was my lift home, was to stay in the tournament while he was still in contention. Pete made Top 8, but I dropped out after the first round of Day 2. So why the change?

Well, there was round 8. After winning the last round reasonably comfortably at the end of Day 1, I was looking to dish out some righteous payback with my ridiculous Coldsnap deck. And then I mulliganed to five and lost, and although I won game 2 it involved a lot of scratting around for the right color land. In game 3, the deck finally packed up and stranded me on three land, unable to cast Chill to the Bone on his Ronom Hulk until it was too late. After which, I ticked the drop box.

From an icy cool uber-competitor viewpoint, this is incorrect. I had a ridiculous deck and would probably pick up easy ranking points in the next round. I dropped because if I didn’t, there was a strong possibility I’d tear someone’s head off. And I mean it literally. We’re talking ripped out spinal columns and arterial blood on the ceiling here.

The frustrations of coming to Nationals as possible favorite and then spending the majority of the weekend being simply unable to play the game because of the way the cards were turning was really starting to get to me. Normally I’m a pleasant guy to play against, but I’d spent most of round 8 punching the top of my deck and spitting like a cat caught in a vise. My opponent, James Foster, did remark it was odd considering the game was for absolutely nothing, but then he hadn’t seen what I’d had to put up with for the weekend.

One of the truths about Magic is that no matter how much preparation you put into an event, and no matter how good you think your game is at the time, you will have tournaments like this. The challenge is being able to deal with it mentally.

I’ve mentioned “tilt,” and I suppose I should explain what I mean. Anyone who plays poker will be familiar with the term (which is probably everybody, and you’re all going to jeer at me when I screw up the definition, being a poker noob and all that). A player generally goes on tilt after losing with a hand or succession of hands that initially looked the best. Basically, they start throwing logic out of the window, start playing hands they shouldn’t, and can end up losing a lot of money quickly.

So how does it apply to Magic?

First, let’s find out if you’ve ever been in these following situations:

Have you ever refused to accept a card or deck was good, despite losing to it on multiple occasions?

Conversely, have you ever refused to accept a card or deck might be bad, despite it failing to perform on multiple occasions?

The tilt factor is failing to recognise when the world is different from our own perceived notion of it. That rogue deck or strategy that you were so busy moaning about yesterday might easily become today’s dominant archetype. Complaining bitterly about how lucky such-and-such was with that pile of rogue cards is just asking for another beating. The world moves on, and you should be looking to move on with it.

Have you ever had a bad performance with a deck or card and refused to play it again?

Most of the time a failing strategy is a failing strategy, but sometimes a perfectly good deck might fall prey to odd draws. Throwing it off the pier doesn’t really help matters (but does feel good).

Tilt can also manifest through incorrect play choices. Making the “correct” choice and then having it turn out wrong is especially insidious, as it’s human nature to make the opposite (and wrong) decision the next time the situation arises. Incorrect mulliganing is a classic example. I know I’m far too reluctant to mulligan hands that really aren’t strong enough. This has mainly been conditioned through the electro-shock therapy of seeing too many sort-of-okay-but-not-quite seven-card hands become hopeless five-carders.

A really dangerous form of tilt, and probably the one most familiar to poker, is getting reckless because it “must be your turn to get a break.”

Have you ever kept a sketchy hand or made a dodgy play because you’ve felt “the world owes you,” or “it has to be my turn now”…?

There is no need to think like this. Just because you got horribly screwed last game doesn’t mean fate is going to play nice and give you that land you desperately need this time either.

One of my own personal warning signs is I start to get aggressively optimistic. Generally along the lines of “that card better be there this time or else…”

Or else what? It’s a deck of cards, and it’s most definitely unfazed by threats.

Challenging fate like this is akin to picking scabs. All that happens is you end up bleeding again.

Generally, you should be playing Magic using your head. The moment you throw logic out of the window and start thinking in terms of hunches, or that you’re “owed something,” is time to take a short break to restore focus.

That’s pretty much what happened to me after Nationals. I played an online league match a day after, and got riled up when I lost because I couldn’t get to six mana to cast a Firemane Angel. At this point, I recognised I’d gone radioactive and needed a cooling-down period. I find when I try to play in this frame of mind every bad draw, or even neutral one, gets blown up into a rampant screw of epic proportions and serves as further proof of how much the world loathes and detests me. It’s irrational, but that’s the living essence of tilt… and the most important rule is you don’t play while you’re on tilt.

This might all sound a little bleak, with the whole “life isn’t fair” and “the world doesn’t owe you a thing” motif, but Magic is still a highly skilful game. If you play correctly and make the right choices, you’re going to win more often than not, but you also have to bear in mind that “more often than not” does not equate to “always” and be prepared to handle the disappointments when things don’t go to plan.

I didn’t really have to include the Nationals report, especially as the format is stone dead, but nothing helps the pain of losing to savage luck better than boring someone else with a sorry tale of woe. Besides, it should bring a satisfied smile to all of you out there who felt I was the jammiest, topdecking lucksack in existence after Honolulu. And thus balance is restored to the universe…

I also said I’d explain my nominations for the Hall of Fame. As the results have already been published, that should give you some idea of how long I’ve been tinkering on this. But never mind; I still feel I should publicise my votes somewhere.

Last year, all of my selections made it in. This year, I was fairly sure this wouldn’t be the case. For one, it was really hard. In my eyes there was one standout candidate, and then about ten or more others that had a strong argument.

For me, Bob Maher is the no-brainer. He pretty much has everything on his resumé. The only other thing that muddies the waters slightly is his suspension. I disagree with Mark Rosewater championing of Mike Long because I believe honoring a player — any player — with such a murky past would send out a catastrophically bad signal.

So what to do with Bob? I find it hard to take a totally black and white stance on this one, although I don’t begrudge anyone who elected not to vote for him. In the end, I decided his achievements outweighed his minor infraction. I imagine I’ll have another equally difficult decision when Olivier Ruel becomes eligible in a few years time.

My next choice was Michael Pustilnik. Mikey P has also got pretty much everything on his resumé, but is probably doomed to be forever overlooked. This is one for the quiet guys.

Number three was Alex Shvartsman. Okay, so the PT record isn’t the best, but Shvartsman had staggering success on the GP circuit with a still unsurpassed 21 Top 8’s. Shvartsman was the original road warrior and an excellent ambassador for the game.

The longevity award goes to Raphael Levy. 51 Pro Tours is some dedication to the game. If Magic is still going twenty years from now, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Levy still rocking up to fling pieces of cardboard.

The final choice was horrible. In the end I jumped for Mattias Jorstedt on the back of an electric 2003 performance that saw him make three PT top 8s.

Justin Gary and Gary Wise were the other two names I strongly considered, but as I said there were easily another five names that wouldn’t look out of place.

While I didn’t get all of my selections this year, I don’t disagree with any of the names that made it either. As I said, it was a tough choice.

I know there’s a fair few of you out there that couldn’t care less about the Hall of Fame and get irritated by the amount of coverage it receives. Personally, I think it’s important. It gives the game a sense of history. Without the Pro Tour and organised competitive play, I don’t think Magic would have persisted for as long as it has (but no more Coldsnaps please).

Thanks for reading.

Craig Jones