For this week, I had no clue what to write about, so I decided to take inspiration from a topic in the Brazilian forum that I saw a long time ago, from my friend Lucas, which was about the flaws and weaknesses of the author. I thought it was interesting, so I am writing one myself, adapted a little bit.
Every time I watch one of those movies where someone is learning to fight, there is an old, short guy who says something along the lines of “the path of true knowledge begins by knowing yourself” (or one of its infinite variations, but they always come down to the same main idea). I figure that they can’t be all wrong (and they do beat everyone in all the movies, so they have to be doing something right – have you seen Yoda with that Lightsaber?), so in this article I’ll go on a little bit of a journey of self discovery. Everyone has certain strengths and weaknesses, and today I’ll go over mine, seeing how I managed to acquire the strengths (and man is that word annoying to type… I always misplace the “h” for some reason, and have to go back to correct it) and how I can exploit them, and what I can do to correct my biggest weaknesses. Hopefully you can relate to some of them, or get to know what your own strengths/weaknesses are so that you can exploit/fix them.
In no particular order:
Strength #1 – I have a very good theoretical knowledge of the game
Of all the skills I have in Magic, I think my biggest one is my theoretical knowledge of the game. By theoretical I do not necessarily mean theory such as the one in articles, but the ability to look at something and judge how good it is, how it interacts with the format or within a deck. One example of that (that I’ve already talked about) is the Necrotic Ooze deck – by simply looking at it, without ever playing, I was able to figure out what to take out and what to add, and it took the other guys a whole day of playtesting to come to the exact same conclusions.
This is a good skill to have for a couple of reasons – the first one is that I lose very little time with ideas that are not going to work. That is not to say I don’t have them – obviously I do, like everyone else, but it takes me less than 10 minutes to discard them most of the time. Sometimes I get to play a few matches, and four or five games are enough for me to throw something bad away, or to identify that the idea is good. If I do that, I can focus on what actually matters – and, because of the same skill, I can generally tweak a deck to what I need relatively quickly. I am not the best deckbuilder ever in the way of coming up with different, exciting ideas, but once I have an idea, I am very good at tweaking it. I guess it could be said that I am extremely good at finding weaknesses – if you come with a deck idea, I can probably tell you why it doesn’t work very quickly and accurately, which doesn’t mean I can necessarily fix it or come up with a better idea myself.
The other moment this is useful is with building sideboards. In the ideal world, you’d test post-sideboarded games against everything to figure out your best 15. The ideal world never happens – even if you’re good at discarding bad ideas, you’ll end up with a lot of decks that have potential (or with no deck that has potential, which is the same thing for all practical purposes I guess), and there is just no time to build a perfect sideboard, or it might just be that you don’t know what exactly you are facing until the days before the event, or you never know what you’re facing and have to build a sideboard with that in mind. In those cases (which is pretty much all of them), you have to extrapolate what you actually do know, and estimate what you’re going to need to win those matches – you have to theorize everything in your head, and then apply it without much testing. Again, the finding weakness comes to mind – I can generally identify why a deck would lose to another deck, so it is easier to fix it after board. One example of that is our sideboard for Naya in San Diego – as soon as someone suggested Sparkmage in the sideboard, everyone was on board instantly, and we all knew it would be awesome without actually playing a single game with it.
The best way to learn how to theorize things without actually playing is, well, to just play a lot. I know it seems counterproductive to have to play a lot just so that you don’t have to play much, but it really is the way it is – you can’t start playing Magic and theorize everything from the beginning. You can’t just play mindlessly, though – you have to actually learn from what you are doing, learn why things are the way things are – this is the most important thing. The moment you conclude “Wake beats Tog“, that is good information for a tournament or two, as long as those two decks remain legal and important. The moment you conclude “Wake beats Tog because Wake can tap out for its draw spells and threats at will and Tog has no card to punish it for it, whereas Tog cannot tap out for Deep Analysis because it risks Wake playing Mirari or Mirari’s Wake and it can’t beat those”, you get information and knowledge that you can apply in many formats, with many matchups – the moment this happens again, you’ll be able to identify it very quickly. By the same token, if you know why you are winning or losing, you can fix it with the sideboard without actually testing it much.
You can take, for example, GP Columbus. During the byes, I played a couple of games against Patrick Chapin’s Survival deck (I was playing Counterbalance), and I lost all of them – about 7 if I recall correctly. Then Josh asked me afterwards “did you win?”, to which I replied “No, but I learned”. And I did learn – from those games only I was able to understand the match much better, and when I played Chapin in the last rounds of the tournament I was able to identify what mattered, how I could lose, and I stopped myself from walking into the cards I had walked into during our practice games, winning the match 2-0. I recall Chapin saying that he, too, had profited a lot from our very small amount of testing, and used that knowledge to beat a lot of Counterbalance opponents during the tournament. So, remember, you don’t playtest to win, you playtest to learn, and you learn by understanding “why” things happen.
Ironically enough, my greatest strength may also be my greatest weakness…
Weakness #1 – I always see the weaknesses much more than the strengths
Weakness #2 – It is very hard to sway me once I’ve created an opinion
I group those two together, because together they bring me the most trouble.
I believe that, precisely because I am so good at theorizing, I generally make up my mind and then never look back, usually accepting my conclusions as if they were the absolute truth. Though faith in myself and my theory is good in many situations and saves a lot of time and brainpower, there are some times in which I am just not right (don’t tell anyone I said that, though). In those times, being stubborn harms me as much as it helps me in other situations.
The biggest example I can find of that is Pro Tour Berlin. It is usually said that “everyone who knew about Elves played Elves”, with the “unless they couldn’t buy Glimpses” derivation added shortly after. That is misleading – what actually happened was that everyone who knew how good Elves was played Elves. Many people knew about Elves, they just dismissed it because they thought it was bad – I was one of those people.
You see, in case you’ve read, well, anything that I’ve written in the past years, you can probably notice pretty quickly that I hate decks that are exclusively Green and White. Let’s face it, those colors just suck – playing a Green, White or Green/White beatdown deck is just a recipe for failure, and has been so for much of recorded history. When I was presented with the Elf deck (which was before most people, too, because it originated in Magic-League), all its weaknesses immediately came to my mind as if in a flood – “it can’t win without Glimpse”, “it is very inconsistent”, “it is highly susceptible to mass removal”, “it has a lot of hands that do nothing”, “it can’t afford to get mana flooded”, “it runs too few lands so it’s going to get mana problems a lot”, etc, etc. At the point I was introduced to the deck, those were all true, to some level. I was convinced to play a couple games against it, because my friend claimed it was awesome, then I kept beating with Zoo but just playing Seal of Fire (and by kept beating it I mean I won 3 games). That was enough for me, and I discarded it – let the kids worry about their kids decks.
What every other smart person on the planet did was identify the same weaknesses, as I did, and then work on fixing them. While I simply discarded the deck as bad, those people saw the strengths of the deck where I only saw weaknesses – they figure that if they fixed the major problems, the deck would be very good. I remember reading/hearing someone in a testing group (Zac Hill I believe) saying that the first thing they had realized was “Ok, this deck is awesome when it draws Glimpse – now let’s make it good when it doesn’t” – that is a very different thought than “this deck can’t win without Glimpse”. In the end, most people solved most major problems (adding Elvish Visionary to the original list, for example, went a long, long way), and the deck crushed the tournament while I was busy playing Zoo mirrors in table 80. I generally hate the kid’s decks, but, for that tournament, my prejudice and blind faith in my first impression made it so that I was the one playing the kid’s deck.
Another situation where this could have hurt me a lot but didn’t was with the Ad Nauseam/Grace deck for Amsterdam. Again I had it before most people did, and I kind of dismissed it because it had a bad match against Faeries, which I thought would be one of the most popular decks. I had not actually played, but surely it just couldn’t beat it – that was the kind of deck that Faeries preyed on. I remembered Berlin, though – my mindset was “this deck is awesome when I am not playing against Faeries, let’s make it good when I am”. Then I played a couple games, and realized I didn’t need to do anything – the deck already beat Faeries g1 (though g2 was somewhat problematic, I found), due to a combination of cheap counterspells and redundance with Mystical Teachings, as well as a kill that could be administered in response to Mistbind Clique. As the format evolved before the Pro Tour, the deck became known, and I saw a lot of people dismissing it instantly because it “couldn’t beat Faeries”, and every time I witnessed someone saying that I thought to myself “hah, n00b”. In the end I didn’t play the Ad Nauseam deck, but it was not because its Faeries match (which proved to not be a popular deck at all, anyway).
Overall, this is not a terrible weakness to have – it will rarely hurt you (at least if you’re correct most times, and if you aren’t, why are you ever trusting your instincts?), but the time it does hurt you, it will kill your entire tournament, because you will misjudge things so greatly that there will be no comeback. I feel like I am getting a little bit better, but I still tend to think everything is bad – all you have to do is read one of my set reviews, or an article in which I talk about other people’s decks to notice it – it is much easier for me to find weaknesses, and even though the weaknesses I see generally are weaknesses, it usually blinds me to the potential. So, for this year, I will try to look not only at the weaknesses but at the potential of the cards – many cards and decks deserve that you try to beat their weaknesses so they can achieve their full potential, and at the moment I just never do that.
Strength #2 – I know how to go from defensive to aggressive within a game, and how to do both at the same time
I think I have talked about this “skill” many times, because of Faeries. Faeries was both the deck that developed this skill the most in me, and the deck that profited from it the most, because you had to constantly change roles during the same game – it is the skill that made me known as one of the best Faeries pilots in the world. If you messed up in that aspect you’d generally lose, but if you were good at it you would often win games that seemed unwinnable from an outsider’s perspective, merely because you attacked for one when you were facing a 7 power counterattack, for example. The Faeries of today’s Extended is not this extreme, because Jaces make it more possible for you to just play control, but it is still something you should master if you intend on playing the deck.
The first thing you should have in mind is that some decks never assume a completely aggressive or a completely controlling perspective. If you play 5 CC, you are control for 90% of your matches, and you are absolute control – you don’t care about killing them, and you’d rather have them start at 30 life so that you could start at 21. With Faeries, sometimes you are control and sometimes you are aggro, but you are never really 100% one or the other. Many people make a mistake when they are forced to assume a controlling perspective, believing that they can forego all the aggression for the moment because they are “on the defensive”. With Faeries (and other aggro control decks, too), it is never so – even if you are with your back to the wall, you have to be thinking about the moment you’re going to kill them. It doesn’t matter if they have a much stronger board, if they are at 20 and you’re at 2, sometimes you just have to sneak that Mutavault attack in, because those 2 points will be the difference between winning and losing nine turns from now. Basically, if you always think about how you’re going to kill them, even if you are defending yourself, the time where you actually have to go for it and start killing them will present itself more naturally. Always remember that, no matter the role you’re being forced to assume at one particular moment, you are never only one, absolutely, but always both at the same time with this kind of deck.
Another aspect that really helps the aggro/control transition inside a game is basic math. One thing that I’ve noticed with math is that, in general, whoever doesn’t like or is very familiar with it tends to be extremely scared of it. I see it in my university – for those of you who don’t know, I am majoring in International Relations. As such, we have classes of everything – law, economics, politics, history, etc. In our first year, we had Introduction to Economics (or something like that). My classmates are mostly bright people, with a lot of knowledge in a lot of areas – it is not exactly an easy major to get in, and most people who decide to go for it already have a good background, yet they were all terrified of Introduction to Economics. Every time the teacher would write something with a big amount of numbers, no matter how simple (and it really was very basic, especially if you had already been in a physics major for a while, like I was for a year), the class as a whole would wince, their fear almost palpable. Sometimes it was just adding and equating, and they’d be like, “noooo numbers noooooooo.” People who don’t like math really don’t, and they want to get close to it at any level.
With some decks, you can’t escape from math. Those where you have to go from aggro to control and vice-versa in the middle of the game are the most notorious ones. I often see people with a Bitterblossom in play who don’t know if they should attack or block – why, do the math! It might seem complicated, because there are a lot of numbers (Bitterblossom, attacks, blocks, many creatures over many turns, burn spells, removal, Mistbind Clique in two turns…), but it is basically all adding and subtracting those numbers – sometimes it takes some work, but it is not hard, so don’t be lazy. Vendilion Clique attacks for 3, over three turns it’s going to attack for 9. If the opponent is at 10, you need to sneak an attack in with a token or Mutavault at some point – if you do that, it’s one fewer turn you have to defend. Or perhaps you should have played that Spellstutter Sprite at the end of the turn four turns ago – then Vendilion would only have to attack twice. Primeval Titan gets two Valakuts, next turn gets two Mountains, that’s six for each Mountain – but maybe it’s better to get a third, or fourth Valakut… if you kill the guy, then you don’t die to a burn spell this turn, but you give them two turns, but if you just shoot them that’s one fewer turn they have to draw their removal for your Titan, and maybe you can afford to let those creatures live, but do you even need your Titan? Maybe you can win without it if you kill the creatures… all those questions are easily answered if you are not afraid to do a little math and project on how the board and the life totals are going to look like in two or three turns. Believe me, it gets much easier to know if you should defend or if you should attack when you know when you’re going to kill them and when you’re going to die.
Weakness #3: I underestimate most of my opponents
Year comes and year goes, and I can’t help but always do this – every time I play against someone I don’t know, I default to the fact that they’re not very good, and it takes me good plays from them to convince me otherwise. It is not that I particularly think they’re bad, but I just don’t respect their actions as much as I should, and sometimes it ends up with me losing the game. If I play against Saito Shuhei and he makes a play that looks weird, I will try to find an explanation – what does he have in his hand that makes him Bolting me better than Bolting my Ram-Gang? Why did he not cast that spell I know he has? He didn’t counter this spell, does that mean he doesn’t have a counter? If he then shows me a counter, then what else does he have that he didn’t counter it? Why did he keep this hand if he hasn’t done anything yet? The list goes on, and on, and on. I think that, for this reason, I play much better against players I “trust” – because I know their actions are sources of information.
If I am playing against someone I don’t know, though, I have a really hard time doing it. Why did he keep this hand if he hasn’t done anything yet? Well, maybe he doesn’t know this hand is bad. Maybe he is one of those people that never mulligans a hand with lands and spells, no matter how much the spells cost or what colors the lands are. Maybe he is one of those people that never mulligans, period. Maybe he is not aware the mulligan rule changed 10 years ago. How am I supposed to know? In those situations, just ignoring what they do and assuming they have no clue is the easy way out – you just play your game and hope you win. That is wrong – basically, the world is not split between Shuheis and mentally handicapped people, and even if my opponent is not good enough to be in the Hall of Fame, that doesn’t mean he is just playing his cards without a care in the world, it doesn’t mean he has no clue – he just has less clue, but clue enough for me to infer from his plays.
Many times I catch myself, sometimes even in later rounds of GPs, running into something that was extremely obvious. Every time I say to myself that I am an idiot, and I could have easily prevented the play if I just supposed my opponent’s actions were making any sense, and then next tournament I do the exact same thing. So, for this year, I will try to not underestimate my opponents – even if I don’t know how good they are, even if I actually know they’re not good, that doesn’t mean they don’t know anything – they surely know something, or they wouldn’t be there. I have to get that inside my head, and start treating them like the sentient beings they are, or they will keep beating me.
Strength #3 – I always have a plan and I play the game as a whole
One of the most important things I learned about Magic is that a game of Magic is one whole “thing”, and not a sum of its parts. Everything you do when you play has to be for the big goal, which is to ultimately win the game. You may play each turn as a turn, each play as a play, and you’ll achieve moderate success, but you’ll never be one of the very best if you cannot see everything as one thing. As for me, every single thing I do, every land I play, every attack or block, every mulligan, it is always with a plan in mind – a plan that I think will get me to win the game, even if it doesn’t always seem part of a big picture. If I Doom Blade a creature, I know why. If I don’t Doom Blade it, I know why I didn’t. It might even be the wrong plan, but I always try to have one.
For this reason, I hate so much when people come and ask me “so what’s the best play here?”, because the best play does not exist in a vacuum – you need to know the decklist, whatever you know from the opponent’s deck, what is in both player’s graveyards, how the guy played in past games, how he played this game. The decision between playing around a card or the other is often based on a play your opponent made turn two, which indicates he had or didn’t have one of those cards. For example, if I ask you “would you rather your bear lived or died”, you’d obviously say “lived”. If I asked you “would you rather your bear died blocking a 10/2 or lived”, you’d probably say “died”. If I asked you “would you rather your bear died blocking a 10/2 or lived, when your opponent is at 2 and you are at 100”, then the answer might be different – the more information you have to connect to the decision, the better you can make it, and decisions never exist in a vacuum, but in the context of your plan to win the game.
I remember when I read about the Queen’s Gambit, a while ago. I don’t play chess, so I might be wrong, but from what I remember it was a situation in which you offered to lose your queen (the best piece) for a better board position. In Magic, all of your pieces, your life total included, serve the goal of winning, and they are all expendable – they are only means to a goal. Use them to achieve that goal, in the context of the game you’re playing.
If you have a plan, you will also be much faster as a bonus. When you already know the general direction you’re taking, it becomes a lot easier to make a play than if you have to think everything from the beginning all the time. By doing that, you also cut your opponent’s time to think, which, if he doesn’t have a plan himself, might prove problematic for him.
Weakness #4 – I make too many stupid mistakes
I was talking to Luis a while ago, and he said that, though he thought I played very well technically, sometimes I made mistakes that he just wouldn’t expect me to make. That is certainly true – sometimes you will see me doing the most stupid things. At Worlds, for example, not once but twice I sacrificed a fetchland and had nothing in my deck to search for. One of the times it was completely irrelevant and the game was already won, but the other it cost me the game. In the semifinals, I left a Mindbreak Trap on the table and forgot it was in my hand. In a side draft at a GP, I didn’t attack for fear of a counter attack when I was at one, except my opponent’s 1/1 had Infect and I completely forgot. I remember games in which I made an awesome play only to forget to sacrifice my Panorama at the end of the turn – basically not situations where you had a tough decision and messed up, because that is unavoidable since no one plays perfectly, but things that I could easily avoid. The main point is (at the risk of sounding somewhat arrogant) – how does someone as good as me make this kind of mistake all the time?
I think there are two explanations; the first one is that sometimes you just aren’t paying enough attention. It is hard to justify this, because if you spent hours and hours testing and thousands of dollars to get to some place, then why on earth aren’t you paying enough attention? What is more important at this point? I know I cannot stop myself from making mistakes due to lack of attention altogether, but I could probably lower them by a significant amount, and probably so can you.
The other explanation is that I sometimes get so caught in the big picture that I miss the small details. There are situations in which I realize what I have to do to win the game – it is very complicated, but I manage to think of it, because I have a plan and the big picture and all that. I then get so happy that I managed to come up with something so clever and complicated, and as I am in the middle of executing it, my opponent pays 2 and regenerates his Masticore, and the whole plan falls apart. Now of course I know that Masticore regenerates – everyone knows that. But I got so excited that I found the best play, a play that had to encompass everything that I knew about that particular game, that had to use all my deduction power to figure out my opponent had to have a Shatter in hand or that his play wouldn’t make sense, that I completely ignored this small detail – which was of course detrimental.
To solve that, I think that I have to focus on the small things too, not only on the big picture (though not thinking about the big picture doesn’t help either) – I think the best way to do that is just to pause a little bit before you make your very important and complicated decisions, to make sure you don’t miss anything obvious. This is probably the most broad of them, the one you likely share with me, and the one that is impossible to get rid of entirely.
Weakness #5 – I’m content with top 8s.
For a long time, I wondered why I could never win a tournament. My top 8 ratio was incredible, but when it came to actually playing on Sunday, I lost every time – I think I used to be the biggest top 8 loser in the history of Magic. All of my games were very close too – it was always 3-2, and I always felt like I played well, so it’s not like I choke under pressure or anything like that.
Nowadays, I think I know part of what was wrong – for all of those tournaments, top 8ing was the goal. If you top 8, you’ve made a mark – you’ve reached the next stage. You get a lot more money, a lot more pro points, you get to fill a player profile, you get to take a picture, you are invited to Wizard’s lunch, you get filmed – it is really a big difference. Once you’ve top 8ed, ironically enough, the will to win dims.
There were two tournaments in which I noticed a real change of how I felt. The first was San Juan, where my thought changed from “I’m going to top 8 this tournament” to “I’m going to win this tournament.” Interesting enough, a lot of people seem to support the “play one match at a time,” “only care about next round,” or “I’ll just play Magic until they tell me to stop” school of thought, but for me it is the exact opposite, though obviously different things work for different people. For me, I cannot stop myself from thinking “only 5 more!” when I am at a certain record, or “I have to win the next two so I can draw in,” or even “that’s ok, I can lose this one and two more, don’t get desperate Paulo.” I do try to not let it interfere in my matches, of course, but between matches, and even between games, I often find myself thinking of what I’m going to write in the player profile if I top 8.
The other tournament was GP Houston, the Scapeshift one. In that one, I top 8ed, and then I lost in the top 8, and for the first time for as long as I can remember, it left me extremely bitter. Not that t8 isn’t great – it clearly is and I was happy for that – but I wanted more, and I think I played better in the entire tournament because of that.
This is a weird topic, though, because it is not like simply wanting it is going to make you win – it is more that not wanting it will perhaps make you lose. I know that when I am playing a match that doesn’t matter a lot – for example, when I am already locked for top 8, or when I am only playing for a couple of boosters but cannot realistically achieve anything important – I tend to lose a lot more. In those past top 8s, though I was playing for a lot more than any other match, I had the mindset of “well, whatever happens, I already got what I came for.”
The real problem, though, is that you cannot will yourself to want to win. I know I should not be content with a non-win, but how do I stop myself? Even if I know I have to want more to get more, how do I make myself want more? It seems to me that sometimes I want more, and sometimes I’m happy with what I got, but I really have no clue as to how I change from one mindset to the other. So, for this year, I think I have to change my mindset – I have to want to win the tournaments, as opposing to wanting to top 8 – but this might be the hardest weakness to get rid of, because I have no clue how to do it. In this right moment, I am thinking that I have to top 8 PT Paris. Then I mental-slap myself and think “no, win, I have to win.” But then 5 seconds later I realize that I really just want to top 8, and that is my real goal for the tournament, no matter what I want it to be. I feel that, if I want to actually win PT Paris, my attitude towards it will have to change first.
Well, this is it. You might note that I pointed out more weaknesses than strengths – that is not only because I’m an infinitely humble person, but because I think the strengths are more “general” and overlap more, whereas the weaknesses I can pinpoint more easily. Those are certainly not my only strengths and weaknesses, though they are the ones I feel are the most important or the most useful to mention, at least right now. I hope that, if anything, you were able to absorb a little bit of my strengths, and that I’ve helped you avoiding the weaknesses that I have so that you do not also have them. I also hope that, in time, I manage to overcome those weaknesses myself – I know that we can never be flawless, but lowering the number of flaws is definitely possible, and what I’m trying to do.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this,