Improbable Moves

Last week I outlined a strategy for identifying elements of your game that are working despite a mediocre finish, and trying to use those positives as the foundation for playing better. Overall, I’ve found looking at positives rather than belaboring the negatives tends to yield better results.

Masterful Advice

In the comments section, I received a message from PVDDR that caused me to reflect on my experience and outlook:

“You didn’t really ask for advice, so feel free to ignore this if you want, but I think this much positivity is a little bit forced. Saying ‘my draft deck was bad, but I was very confident and drafted well, I just didn’t open good cards either draft and then flooded out’ will not really get you to improve. It’s nice to find positives and replicate them, but to me it seems like you’re forcing yourself to find a positive rather than analyzing the situation objectively, and I think this limits your ability to recognize what you did badly and improve. There has been a ‘positivity is very important’ trend on articles lately but saying ‘I’m the best, I did everything well’ to yourself over and over does not amount to improvement or match wins when all is said and done. I’m not saying ‘be negative’ either, but ‘be realistic’ is IMO a better approach than ‘be positive.'”

I appreciated the comment a lot. It isn’t everyday that a Platinum-level pro takes the time to offer you some useful advice, and I would be a fool not to seriously take it to heart.

To some extent I agree that “this much positivity is a little bit forced” is true. It isn’t phony, but it is forced. I’m not, by nature, a particularly positive-minded individual. I tend to see the glass half-empty and focus on the aspects of things that I don’t like. Not a good thing. So yes, I really do force myself to be more positive and that approach has made a big difference in my life over the past 8 months.

Paulo’s suggestion is that being realistic is more important than being either positive or negative, and he has a great point.

To be clear, I’m not advocating a style of self-realization that completely overlooks areas where you fall short in favor of nonstop self-congratulation, but sometimes the old adage that sometimes “a mana flood is just a mana flood” can be true and it is best not to beat yourself up over it too much. With that being said, I have reflected on my preparation and play in Atlanta, Honolulu, and Milwaukee, and have thoughts about how I might learn from those experiences.

Finding the Right Thing to Focus On

I did my best to take PVDR’s advice to heart. I didn’t exactly know what to do with it at first. I merely kept it on the back-burner, and looked for opportunities to apply it.

There were 2 matches of Magic I played that really stood out to me as extremely positive moments. I felt these were games I won despite having poor cards because I made great plays. I mean, that is the dream, right? To beat people with bad cards because of skill?

Specifically, the use of bluffing, representing cards I didn’t have, and doing everything I possibly could to give myself a chance to win resulted in my finding a way out when the cards themselves wouldn’t have been enough—and it worked!

It is all fine and good to be pleased with a few games where I played above my typical ability. But when I brought that into the advice PDVR gave me, I realized that if I’m being realistic, I have to recognize that if I am capable of playing at that level and I frequently don’t play up to that level, then I have work to do.

It is all fine and good to be pleased with a handful of well executed games, but the fact of the matter is that if I am being realistic, I have to recognize that if I’m not consistently bringing this level of intensity to my matches, that I’m not playing to my ability. I’ve made a focus to be positive, have good sportsmanship, and not linger on bad beats, but with that being said, I haven’t emphasized really “bringing it” each and every time. It seems like the natural next step.

These are examples of “bringing the A game” and using some outside-the-box thinking to win a game that would otherwise be out of reach.

Game 3: G/B Delirium vs. G/R Energy Aggro

My turn-2 Grim Flayer ate a Harnessed Lightning and after several bricked draw steps I found myself in a world of trouble. I had a Sylvan Advocate and not much else, a handful of land, and an anemic Traverse the Ulvenwald nowhere near delirium.

Luckily, my opponent had durdled around on mana in the early turns (a couple of energy Lay of the Lands) and only had a Voltaic Brawler in play, but a fistful of cards.

On my fourth turn I draw a redundantly useless Traverse and search up a Swamp, which allows me to represent an instant-speed removal spell. I realize the key to winning is going to be bluffing my way back into the game because if my opponent makes a move I will certainly die.

My opponent plays a land, attacks, and energizes the Brawler. With nothing more than a bluff to sell, I quickly tap 3 lands and pull them back and ask: “Oh, any effects before damage?” My opponent goes into the tank for a good 30 seconds about “to pump or not to pump” before deciding not to move.

Before I even draw for my next turn I know exactly what my line will be if I brick, which I do. You know how James Brown sings about being a Sex Machine? Well, I’m a Brick Machine.

Having drawn another land I move directly to my main phase and phantom tap 4 lands and pull them back upright and going momentarily into the tank and passing. The thought here is that I’m selling that I have a Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet or Mindwrack Demon but decided leaving removal up is too important here for fear of pump spells.

My opponent attacks again but doesn’t play pump spells into my 5 untapped mana.

On turn 6 I am rewarded with an actual card, Grasp of Darkness. I briefly consider main phasing it on the Brawler—the problem is that I need my Hissing Quagmire to die and to cast Grasp to enable delirium on Traverse the Ulvenwald.

My opponent casts Larger than Life and I decide not to Grasp in response. He attacks and I fire up Quagmire, which he double Galvanic Bombardments before he blocks. I shrink the Brawler to stay alive. On my turn I am able to Traverse for Ishkanah, Grafwidow and seal the deal.

The moral of the story:

Sometimes lining your cards up against theirs will not win you the game. Often, the route to victory involves getting an opponent “to do” or “not to do” something for one reason or another.

Game 1: Abzan Company vs. Blue Moon

Game 1 did not start well. I mulliganed and kept: Hierarch, Tireless Tracker, 2 fetchlands, Razorverge Thicket, and Gavony Township on the draw against an unknown opponent.

My opponent suspends Ancestral Vision on the first turn and untaps, and Bolts my Bird. Tireless Tracker bites a Mana Leak and Vision goes off. I have a hand of literally all land.

I keep the Gavony Township a secret and deploy my fetches to play around a Blood Moon. I posture like I have a Collected Company in hand but don’t want to run it into his counterspells, which is reasonable. He’s got Cryptic up and a full grip.

He misses his 7th land drop, which causes him to discard. On my turn I make a really heads-up play to oversell my hand:

Despite having all lands in hand, I intentionally miss my land drop to represent that my hand is stacked.

I can’t take credit for inventing this sicko move. Back in the day, Patrick Chapin told me about somebody having done the same thing to success in a draw-go mirror. I’ve always wanted to take this move for a spin and the opportunity finally presented itself all these years later.

The idea here is that by missing the land drop the opponent figures your hand must be all great spells that you don’t want to walk into counterspells. At least, that is the idea.

The next turn I drew a Collected Company and sandbagged it for roughly 8 or 9 turns. We both play draw-go for a while (my opponent perhaps slightly annoyed that I am topdecking lands like a pro while he is being forced to discard to hand size).

Finally, he hits his eighth land and deploys a Pia and Kiran Nalaar with Cryptic Command up. While shields are pseudo-down I get a Kitchen Finks and a Birds of Paradise into play (with Gavony Township still neatly hidden) and on roughly turn 13, I’ve stuck my first creature! There was a point where I thought I had no shot to win after Vision resolved and I had all lands, but now I was right back in the thick of this game! And I won!

The moral of the story is:

Don’t give up on games that feel unwinnable. I don’t necessarily “expect” to win a game where my opponent just resolved Ancestral Vision and I have nothing, but I’m going to commit harder to trying to win these games in the future because it is possible. Sometimes it is on your opponent to give you openings to claw back into the game, but there are subtle things you can do to give yourself a chance if you are willing to work for it!

The takeaway is that there are always ways that you can improve at Magic. Even if you are positive, feel prepared, and doing the work, there is always more. I’m thankful that PVDDR pointed out that there are levels to seek out that go deeper than merely being positive and giving good effort. There is actively trying to play to the pinnacle of your ability. It isn’t easy to play at that level all the time. It is hard to play at that level for even a round or two, but aiming for that high degree of intensity is my next step!

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