Magic is a very complicated game and it’s easy to make a mistake when playing it. The less experienced you are, the more mistakes you’re going to make, but you will never reach a point where you’re so experienced as to make no mistakes. I remember when I started playing Magic competitively I read a quote from Gabriel Nassif that said he thought he made at least one major mistake per game, which was reassuring at the time—and honestly still is.
When we start playing Magic, we lack many important notions, and make many mistakes. As we evolve as players, we start adapting our behavior to correct those mistakes. I do believe, however, that it’s possible to overcorrect things, resulting in mistakes that are more likely to be made by experienced players than by inexperienced ones.
Mistake #1 – You Think You Have Control Over Everything.
When we start playing competitively, we think we are victims of fate. We had mana issues, our opponents drew perfectly, we had to mulligan to five, and so on. We get so focused on adverse conditions that we ignore the things we could have done to change our odds—we ignore the role we play in constructing our own fate. As a result, we fail to see how we can improve.
Then, as we get better, we understand that we have more control than we previously thought. Sure, you lost because you didn’t draw the fourth land, but maybe you could have played differently on turn two and given yourself one more turn to find it. You lost because he drew more late-game cards in the late-game, but perhaps you could have built your deck in a way that it included more late-game cards. We stop being blind by adversity and we start seeing our own flaws, and with that comes the chance to fix them. That is a good thing and an important step toward becoming a great player.
The problem? We can go too far. As much as we want to have control over everything, we do not, and pretending that we do is just going to lead to disappointment. Many articles state, as a rule, that if you lost it was your fault and you should try to find the reason why that happened. It’s a very comforting thought, really—if it was your fault, then that means it can be fixed, and you get the bonus of looking like a humble, down-to-earth person for suggesting it. But it’s not always the truth.
The truth is, in Magic, there is an element of randomness. You will lose games because you mulligan two unplayable hands down to five and fail to play a second land—it just happens. In this spot, what could you have done? You couldn’t have done anything. What’s there to “look for”?
Most important of all, sometimes you don’t even get unlucky, but you still lose—and it doesn’t have to mean you did anything wrong. Sometimes, you lose because you did everything right, and trying to rationalize it too much is going to lead you to making the wrong decision in the future. It’s normal to lose in Magic—there are two people involved in a game, and half of them are going to lose every time. If both players played very well and neither player got unlucky, one is still going to lose.
Why is it important to stress that you don’t have control over everything? Because, if you don’t understand that this is the case, you will go mad once you start losing. You will be frustrated, disappointed with yourself, and you will come up with imaginary mistakes because you want to feel like you have control over everything. You will try to find reasons for why you lost, but sometimes, there is no specific reason.
The key message here is: sometimes, when you lose a game of Magic, it’s not your fault and that’s OK. Sometimes you will make the right decision and you will be punished, and that’s OK. Sometimes, you lose because losing is part of the game, and there is no particular reason. Perhaps you didn’t even get unlucky, you just lost. The best players in the world have a win percentage smaller than 70%. If there were such a thing as a perfect player, how much would that person win? 75% at the highest level, tops? Probably less than that. So don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s important to acknowledge that you have a lot of control over things so that you can improve, but it’s equally important to acknowledge that you don’t have control over everything, so you don’t punish yourself for things that aren’t your fault.
Mistake #2 – You Choose to Draw in Constructed.
Choosing to play is natural. If you take someone who’s just started playing, more than likely they will just want to play first all the time. When players start becoming more experienced, they realize there are reasons to draw—in grindy Sealed matches, for example, where people will win games because of cards and not because of tempo.
Then, players start becoming more experienced, and they choose to draw more. In my opinion, too often. It’s almost as if “choosing to draw is something good players do,” so you have to do it as well. But you really don’t.
In my experience, choosing to draw in Constructed is a thing of the past. It used to be a viable strategy, but the kind of game it helps you in no longer exists—and, if it does, it’s very rare. This is due to a decrease in power of instants and sorceries, and an increase in the power of permanents—namely creatures and planeswalkers.
If I have a Lightning Bolt, it’s going to deal 3 damage. It doesn’t matter if it’s played on turn one or on turn two. If I have a 3/3, however, it’ll deal 3 damage if played on turn two, but 6 damage if played on turn one. If I have a planeswalker in play before you have yours, it gives me a huge advantage. I don’t want to be the person who is forced to react to my opponent’s every move, even in control mirrors.
I know of two famous instances where good players chose to draw, and in both I think they were mistaken. The first is Sam Black, in his match against Josh Utter-Leyton in the semifinals of PT Philadelphia. Sam was playing the Infect combo deck with Blazing Shoal, and Josh was playing our Zoo version with a touch of blue for some counterspells. Then, Sam chose to draw.
Sam’s reasoning for this, which was passed on to him by those playtesting the matchup, was that it was grindy, they were boarding in Spellskites, and so on—he wanted to have the extra card because it was an attrition matchup. What this decision does not take into account is how much tempo you gain or how much free win potential you have by playing first. If Sam leads with Inkmoth Nexus, what is Josh to do? He probably has to just play a creature, and then Sam gets the chance to win the game on the spot. If Sam plays a Blighted Agent on turn two, then Josh has to spend his own turn two to remove it. If Josh is on the play, both of those can be accomplished with threats already in play. In one scenario, Josh removes the Blighted Agent and attacks for 3. In another scenario, he removes the Blighted Agent, attacks for 6, and plays another 3-power creature. The difference is monumental and definitely worth the “extra card.”
The second scenario is Guillaume Wafo-Tapa playing UB versus Caw-Blade. His reasoning, again, was that it was an attrition match. I disagree with that decision, because Squadron Hawk was the best card in the matchup from the UW side and Mana Leak was the best immediate answer to it. If you’re on the play, you can Mana Leak it. If you aren’t, you can’t.
In the end, I think you should basically always err on the side of playing first in Constructed. It’s likely to be correct the great majority of the time, and, when it’s wrong, it’s never super wrong. Some matchups are very swingy for whoever is on the play—say, 65-35 as opposed to 35-65. If you choose to draw in one of those matchups, you’ll be giving away a lot of win percentage. If you choose to draw, and you’re wrong, you’ll also have little time to fix your mistake—you’ll just be overrun.
There aren’t, however, any matches where the person on the draw has a huge edge. If you choose to play, and the correct choice was to draw, you go from 52-48 to 48-52. More importantly, the game will go long (since you should have chosen to draw), so the advantage you’re giving up is more likely to be diluted throughout a long game. I honestly can’t remember the last time I thought it was correct to draw in a Constructed matchup, so, if you are undecided, choose to play.
Mistake #3 – You Don’t Play Your Lands.
Beginners play their lands all the time—the concept of bluffing is lost on them. As we become more experienced, we realize that holding lands in your hand is often correct—it’s better if they have to play around three cards than if they have to play around one or zero. Then, as we become even more experienced, we hold even more cards—and lose a bunch of games as a result.
The reason for that is twofold: First, there are a lot more uses for lands than we might immediately realize. Imagine you’re playing a Sidsi Whip deck and you have nothing in play and two lands in hand—your 12th and 13th land. Most people would not play a 12th land here, but they might end up paying for that. You can draw Whip, and you might want to play Whip, use Whip on Sylvan Wayfinder, and use the ability on a Soul of Innistrad that you end up milling. If you don’t play your 12th land this turn, you won’t be able to get to 13 mana the next turn.
This is also common when you have draw spells in your deck. If you’re a Treasure Cruise deck, there’s a chance you want to play your last card if it’s a land, because you might draw into Cruise, which will draw you into another land and two spells—perhaps even another Cruise. In this spot, it’s possible that the potential to cast something next turn means more than having your opponent play around a random card in your hand.
The second is that people overrate how strong the “bluff” is. Most of the time, people are going to know you have lands in hand… if you have 11 mana and are getting killed by my Siege Rhino, what am I to expect you have? Are your two cards two Reclamation Sages? And if I suspect they are, will that really change how I play? More than likely I’ll know, or at least strongly suspect, that you’re holding lands.
Now, I’m not saying “always play every land.” That’s clearly not the case. Some decks have mana sinks, some don’t. Some get real advantages from having a random card in hand, some don’t. If you have no card draw, for example, holding the last land is usually good, because if you need it you can just play it. All I’m saying is that you should consider playing them, whereas, for most experienced players, not playing them is the default decision and one they very rarely deviate from.
Mistake #4 – You Overthink Your Opponent’s Actions.
When we start playing, we don’t pay much attention to why our opponent is making a certain play—we focus on our own thing. As we get more experienced, we start understanding that there are reasons for people to make some plays over others, and we infer things from the way they played.
Then, we get very experienced, and we start getting a bit paranoid. I know that many times I’ve thought ,“wow, my opponent played Doom Blade on this creature… what does that mean? He has to have XYZ in hand,” and then they play their hand and they don’t have X or Y or Z, which will usually prompt something like, “Whaat? This makes no sense!” if I’m on video. The reality is that, often, people have a different way of thinking than you do. It’s also very possible that they are right and you are wrong!
If you’re playing against me, you attack your 4/2 into my 2/2 and I don’t block, that probably means I think I’m going to be able to race you. If you attack your 2/2 into my 4/2 and I block, it means I think I’m going to win the long game, so I don’t need this 4/2. But other people think differently—it might not mean the same to them. Perhaps they blocked because they wanted to draw out a pump spell, or because they feared you’d play a bloodthirst guy, or because they like life and don’t like 4/2s. Perhaps they are wrong, perhaps not, but you need to keep in mind that their reasons don’t have to be your reasons.
Here, it’s especially important to know your competition. If I’m playing against LSV and he doesn’t block a 4/2 with a 2/2, I’ll know something is up. I know he wants to race me, or wants to enchant his creature, or wants to mind control my 4/2—something is happening that explains this deviation from the norm.
Now, if I’m playing FNM? I’ll definitely consider that they might want to race me, and I’ll keep that in mind, but the likelihood is that they just didn’t want to lose their guy to a pump spell. I know LSV would probably be glad to trade my turn and a pump spell for a 2/2, so that wouldn’t stop him from blocking, but not everyone thinks like LSV.
In the end, I think this comic from Cardboard Crack sums it up perfectly:
Basically, try to find reasons for why people do things, but understand that sometimes people think differently than you do—regardless of who is right or who is wrong.
Mistake #5 – Your Testing is Inbred.
Inbred testing is usually a luxury of those with big testing teams. If your testing is done through small tournaments or with many different friends, then it’s probably not going to suffer from that. Nowadays, however, big teams have become almost the norm at the PT. Whereas before you had CFB and CFBP, now I’d estimate that over half the competitors at the tournament are working with a group of people in some capacity, so the issue of inbreeding has become more pronounced.
Inbred testing happens when you believe that the choices your teammates are making are more representative of the choices people at the tournament will make than they actually are. For example, if my testing partner plays Abzan every game, and I play a lot against him, I might end up thinking that Abzan is a disproportionate part of the field. If my Jeskai testing partner happens to have four Hushwing Gryff, then I might anticipate that most people will play Gryff, and I might tune my deck to beat it. I might take out some Hornet Queens or Siege Rhinos from my deck, which will in turn make it worse against the actual field of the tournament.
We suffered a bit from this in the last PT, where we had the Jeskai Ascendancy deck from the beginning. It kept beating our other decks, so they all evolved to a point where we didn’t have a sideboard without multiple counterspells, Erases, and even Stain the Mind. This led to people not wanting to play the Ascendancy deck, because they thought everyone, naturally, would have Erases and Stain the Mind. They also didn’t want to play decks like Mono-Green, because they would lose to everyone who played Ascendancy.
In the end, almost no one else was playing Ascendancy, and people didn’t really have the amount of hate we feared. People who didn’t play something because of Ascendancy regret it, and people who had multiple Erases in their sideboard didn’t find much use for them (ironically, the card is good now, but that’s because of Whip and not Ascendancy). I can’t say people regret not playing Ascendancy—it didn’t perform very well—but that was more a function of its sideboard being bad than people having appropriate hate cards, because the hate really wasn’t there.
So, when you’re playtesting with a group, make sure you don’t get too focused on the decks and versions your group has. Again, not everyone thinks like you, and you shouldn’t expect everyone to arrive at the same conclusions regarding which decks or builds are the best. If you feel like you’ve been paying too much attention to a particular deck that happens to be the one people are playing in your group, take a step back and try to analyze things from an outsider’s point of view.
Well, that’s what I’ve got for today… I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and see you next week!