Playing With Follow-through

Flores identifies a pernicious type of error most likely to affect strong players, draws up some illustrative anecdotes from his Champs and Pro Tour LA matches, and sprinkles the whole thing with a generous heap of cryptic initials.

In the competitive realms of Dominia, as in life, there are two kinds of people. No, I am not talking about the division between men willing to pay for sex versus those frustrated paragons less inclined to part with their ducats in an exchange older than the existence of money itself, but instead on the chalk line that divides the relatively content unsuccessful Magician and his brother, the player—green eyed and seething—who hates it when his friends become successful.

For my part, I try (at least) to be jealous of nothing and no one. Early in my Magic career, I flirted with the idea of jealously, that most attractive and seductive avatar of self-fulfilling impotence, but came to understand pretty quickly that she and I were not going to get along very well. One day I was completely outplaying R.B. in a PTQ, and a less than a year later he was the second best player on the planet, with a Pro Tour win at his debut and a Rookie of the Year award to go along with it; a few years back, Joe Black (pseudonym) became first a Pro Tour Top 8 competitor in Block, then a champion, where I recalled him mostly as some kid with the funny name who beat me at the Neutral Ground Grudge Match because I got manascrewed in the mirror; my experience from start to present in Magic has never varied, with stars alighting from shoots as every year passes until now, even the S.W.K., who once could not buy a match at midnight money draft, stands among the talented, the technically adept, the Pro Tour Top 8. Doubtlessly prognosticating a decade and more of mediocrity painfully proximate to ascendant greatness, I decided—if unconsciously—that if I were to succumb to beauteous jealously, to breathe her deeply into my soul every time one of my friends became successful, I would either implode or be forced to quit Magic. As neither of these options seemed particularly appealing, I had no choice but to let the kelly mists of jealously part, uninhaled and unremembered… though everyone takes a grassy whiff now and again, which of course leads into today’s story.

I used to think I had a nice apartment. That was until I visited the SoHo abode of a certain Mr. A.B. Positioned on the corner of Broadway and Prince Street, this apartment is so huge, in a neighborhood so lavish, that I dare not estimate either its volume or cost. Probably it is six times the size of my two bedroom, and situated in an infinitely more posh neighborhood; with original art plastered to every brick, adorning every stand in front of every elevator nook; furniture so nice, leathers and woods so dark, so real that the average girlfriend (or unattached poking puppet) would faint upon catching the first whiff of old world stitching; and ceilings so tall that they are lost in shadow, illuminated only by the pale yellow of the bedroom loft, some dozens of feet above the main area, the said is easily the nicest New York apartment I have ever visited… And the columns? Did I mention the white columns, the fireplace, the ancient, dark wood table covered in draft packs?

Surely, it is great to be a gamer.

The draft itself was remarkable due to the presence of the famous J.S.F. The Man, the Machine, the most talented player ever to lift a shift of cardboard reading “Deckmaster” across the back, J. opened Glare of Subdual, and boasted the nigh elementary results one would expect from that will-o’-the-wisp combination of best player and best crack… But this draft is not about J., but instead about a second round match between his teammate A.B. and our good friend M.W. (possibly the most connected man in the universe). Once merely a Pro Tour player of quiet resume, M. spent last summer reading scripts at J.K.’s office at W.B. (yes, that W.B.). If real life in New York were a trite California-based sitcom about starving writers working as wait staff, M. would be the guy on the can at the hip club, the one with unread manuscripts crowding the Diesels bunched around his ankles. Famous for having the most happening birthday parties this side of the Hilton family—the most happening ones where masses of Magicians are invited, anyway—it is whispered that any random Asian guy can score with any random babe just by pretending to, yes, be the man himself, partly because all Asians look the same, but mostly because of the aura of infectious charisma surrounding even just the M. name. Now you know I don’t like to pollute my articles with personal anecdotes, but one I can contribute, personally, that at M.’s birthday party in 2001, I was able to score quite a few free drinks—D.I. drinks as the kids say—because the foolish Caucasian bartender mistook me for the man of the hour. The secret puppeteer behind Top8Magic, the man D.W. himself (yes, yest, that D.W.) comes to see when he visits New York, M.W. is important to our tale for that same germ of an idea that immortalized A.T. In “Who’s the Beatdown”:

He made a mistake.

I wandered by the second game between M.W. and A.B., and M. passed his fourth turn having never missed a land drop, with a Dimir Signet in play. I espied the Tattered Drake in his hand and puzzled as to why M. hadn’t played it.

“I think it’s wrong against his deck,” M. said. “He’s got a lot of burn.”

“I dunno,” I said. “I think passing is a mistake.”

The opponent crashed over with a couple of dorks, grip brimming with four or five spells—probably fire, all of them—and passed right back.

On his fifth turn, M. tapped five, left a Swamp open, and passed with his Tattered Drake ready to defend against the sundry armies of the Boros Legion.

Like clockwork, the creatures straightened, tapped again, as dork after dork headed into the Red Zone. M. put his newly summoned Tattered Drake in front of a 2/2, regenerated… and then put it in the bin when Galvanic Arc came down.

Way behind, M. eventually fell to the Boros, dead by dorks.

So what was the problem? M. correctly read A.B. as having at least one burn spell. So was passing on turn four when he could play a five drop wrong? I think it still was, even if it is a defensible play.

What is not defensible is M.’s play the following turn.

He dropped Tattered Drake and correctly left up a Swamp. Given the earlier decisions, it is hard to say M. had a better play. The problem comes when M. elected to block during the opponent’s combat. Think it through:

  1. He puts the opponent on a burn spell.
  2. He won’t play the Tattered Drake on turn four because he doesn’t want to lose it to a burn spell.
  3. He waits a turn so that he can regenerate the Tattered Drake from an oncoming burn spell.
  4. He loses the Tattered Drake to a burn spell.

The problem is that M. made the right read, had the right plan, but ultimately didn’t follow through. M. decided that his Tattered Drake was an important resource, something that he needed to win. He accepted four damage he didn’t have to take in order to protect the Tattered Drake long term. At the point that he chose to block and regenerate, it is almost like M. erased all the effort he had spent not doing anything to get there. Clearly if his plan were to not play Tattered Drake on turn four, then he caould not reasonably block with it on turn five. He had to suck up another six or seven and hope that the Drake could help hold the ground starting the next turn, once mana is available.

20051104Flores01.jpgFailing to play with follow through is one of the most insidious chinks in even a strong technical player’s armor. It is different from a slip, from a mental lapse, from even a (regular) tactical error. Failure to play with follow-through means that you had the plan… and then you somehow lost it.

Here are some mistakes of this sort I made in the past two weeks:

It is the finals of New York States. Eventual Champion Julian Levin is on the draw in Game Two, having destroyed me with an unbeatable open in the draw dependent mirror. I keep a one land hand on the play because it has Boomerang, one of the matchup’s key early game cards, and am rewarded with Island into Mikokoro, Center of the Sea. I use Mikokoro to draw into perfect land drops while forcing Julian to discard until, on my fifth turn, I have eight cards in hand.

I correctly play Meloku, knowing that Julian either has to burn a counter or will follow up with Meloku to trade. In the worst case scenario, if he has counter + Meloku, I can just play my backup Meloku and start over again, still ahead, but I actually put him on Cranial Extraction.

Julian counters Meloku as I expected he might, and goes to Cranial Extraction me on the following main phase.

This is exactly the play I put him on when I dropped the Clouded Mirror of Victory!

I have two Extractions in hand, alongside Rewind and Disrupting Shoal. The play is to counter with Shoal, follow up with my own Extraction(s) and exhaust his win conditions.

Inexplicably, I say “Okay.”

20051104Flores02.jpgJulian correctly names “Cranial Extraction,” which is a double Coercion Hymn to Tourach flying elbow, and I collapse. Dreams of being the (gasp) New York State Champion fade alongside jealousy’s mists.

Possibly the worse play is in the second round of Pro Tour Los Angeles. I won the first round against Dragonstorm and faced off against Raphael Levy in the Feature Match area in Round Two.

Levy opened on Duress, taking my Smother, and played Hypnotic Specter into a second Hypnotic Specter, connecting repeatedly for Vindicate, Wrath of God, and other relevant response cards. I drew a Wrath off the top, played it on maybe turn five, and slowly started to take control with Eternal Dragon (two in the bin).

Even though I was steadily gaining ground, Raphael ripped well, and showed me a flurry of Cabal Therapies, and Putrefied my Eternal Dragon. Very late in the game, those early Specters showed their teeth, and I was down to six life, facing two Elephant tokens from a Call of the Herd.

My hand was Plains, Haunting Echoes.

Lacking sufficient mana for full on Dragon recursion that turn, plan was to get back an Undead Gladiator, block, drop to three life, and do it again. Ostensibly, Levy would be playing off the top with a deck that has no Reach and no creature bigger than 3/3; theoretically, I should eventually win with Dragon advantage.

So I discarded Plains (sorry Chad) and picked up my Gladiator.

I drew a Gerrard’s Verdict and took Raphael’s last card (which could have been a lethal Putrefy but ended up being irrelevant), and dropped my Gladiator.

Levy ripped a Birds of Paradise, flashed Cabal Therapy for my Haunting Echoes, and traded. As I didn’t have a card the next turn for Gladiator recursion, that rip—lowly Birds that it was—ended up enough.

So where was the lack of follow-through?

All I had to do was discard Haunting Echoes first and hold the Plains.

A big Haunting Echoes is pretty. It’s powerful. That late in the game, it would have been lethal. In fact, Haunting Echoes late is the prototype Cool Thing. But the plan was to control the board and win with Dragons, cards with actual board presence. The goal was to win in a situation where I had 5/5 access whereas the opponent was playing off the top.

In the end, that game loss meant the match. I won Game Two easily and should have been 2-0 on the round and 2-0 on the day. Instead, Raphael took me in a Game Three that should never have occurred. I slid further the next round against a miserly Neil Reeves, rallied for a couple of rounds, but eventually missed Day Two on a razor close 4-4 (5-3 made the cut) whereas my Round Two opponent, who didn’t lose until the end of Day One, finished a superb Top 16.

Magic is arguably the most complex and rich endeavor in the history of games. In a game that is constantly evolving, it’s difficult to get the right read and be on the right plan to begin with. The challenges in this game are many, but the least we can do—difficult as it may be in long game situations—is to hold onto them as we approach the endgame.

The bitter irony? The kick to the cack? The salt in the wound? The top card of my deck when I conceded was my other Haunting Echoes.

Michael J. Flores

Level VI Writer