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Breaking Through – Day by Day

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever read my column before that I like to write about my own shortcomings or triumphs from time to time. I feel like relaying the information I have experienced first hand can still be put to use by the majority of readers while also having the advantage of providing a huge emotional investment for me, allowing me to write clearer and more passionate than I would if I were writing about some other person, even if that would allow a slightly more objective view.

As someone who appreciates human behavior, I have always found it interesting to look for those life lessons occurring around me and put paper to pen as they happen. Sometimes the lessons comes across more transparently than others, but I think in general, it is a good exercise for both myself and those who may be in similar positions, either now, or in the future. With Worlds on the horizon, I found myself doing this more often than I was used to doing, yet I was not making any of my discoveries public. This was in part because I had not reached any conclusions about the situations, and also in part because I was never to write about what I truly thought was happening. Being honest with yourself can be tough some times.

It was then that I was reminded of an article written by Sam Stoddard a few years back detailing his “Fearless Magical Inventory.” The concept was simple: publicly state the areas you need to improve upon in your Magic game. I remember walking through this exercise when the article came out, but had not done so in quite some time. I didn’t necessarily follow the guideline of the inventory exactly, but the rough idea was the same. When I reached the end of my list, I had to think about it some more. I was writing about only the past year, and all I saw were negative things. This was not because I had only accomplished negative things in the past year, but because that was all I was focusing on through the exercise. It made little sense to me to extract so much bad from the year that was without also acknowledging the places I had indeed improved upon.

And with that came this article. The following is documentation of how I feel my year has gone as far as my improvements and shortcomings going into Worlds. I cannot fully expect to rectify the negative aspects of my time this year for this tournament specifically, but I can work on some of them, and writing about them will make them that much more real. I feel like with everything on this list comes a translated improvement or degradation to my playing Magic as well as just being a good person, and both of those things are obviously things I want to strive for.

I look dumber arguing than I do acknowledging my mistakes

I wrote about this at length a month or so ago, but a recurring theme this year as been me putting my own foot into my mouth time and time again. I love that my teammates have the ability to call BS when they see it from me, but I also do not like the fact that I put them in a position to have to do just that. Because I am so used to blindly defending myself through argument when it comes to criticism, even legitimate times where I do feel the criticism is unwarranted, my rebuttals are brushed aside and ignored, rightfully so.

I need to be more calm and understand that most criticism aimed at me is constructive. Sure, sometimes someone is just trying to lay a beat, but I am smart enough to sift through that and ignore it. Rather than get defensive, as I am prone to do, I need to be more visibly receptive to the ideas and comments from others. Usually, I do process the information from this criticism and digest it at a later point, but there is always some exorbitant amount of arguing that must come first, and that is just a waste of time for everyone involved.

I have adapted my skill set pretty well to accommodate a team mentality

Being a rogue designer may seem like the name only applies because you are doing things differently when it comes to card choices and deck choices, but it also typically means that you are working alone for the most part. People do not want to test their decks against your brews, thinking that they will not get much out of it. Similarly, people do not like to play the gauntlet decks. Yes, sometimes this can be circumvented by good friends or a good team, but not everyone has this luxury. Also, because your evaluations tend to be so different from those around you, it is difficult to discuss ideas or decks. You may be talking about what cards to play in your [card]Thousand-Year Elixir[/card] deck while the person you are talking with can’t even figure out why you would want to play [card]Thousand-Year Elixir[/card] in the first place.

Because of all of this, and more, you tend to work alone and thus develop habits that are built at furthering your own development in a more self-sufficient way. Once the Team came along, those skills were actively bad to have. Instead of putting forth ideas and actions that furthered the team in some meaningful way, I was an all or nothing teammate. I would exhaust so much of my time and energy going down a path that I wanted to go down, that if that path led to a dead end, all of our testing time was up and I was of no help to the team. On occasion, that dead end could have been the destination we wanted to go all along, but that was less likely than not.

However, as time moved on and I got to work with the guys more and more, I began to break that mold. I began to learn how to suggest specific cards rather than decks, especially when the card would be applied to another person’s deck idea. I learned how to more quickly move on or off of an idea I had, maximizing time on productive projects rather than dead end ones. I learned how to focus my time and energy on something I did not create from the ground up, to step into the builder’s shoes and see things they way they saw it. Of course I am not perfect at any of these things yet, but I have grown very quickly in this department, and as a result, I think I am a better teammate all around.

I need to show more patience with members of the team at times

Like most young males, patience is not one of my strong suits, but it is certainly an area I have always wanted to work on, and being a part of a team with so many robust personalities certainly brings the issue up even more now. The thing about working with Team Fireball is that we all have unique styles and mentalities, and conveying those ideas and concepts can sometimes be tricky. I know I have difficulty explaining my ideas to some others and my thoughts are met with laughter or scoffs, but I also know I do those things to others too, and I need to be more receptive or at least better at responding in a meaningful way rather than with insults.

It is easy for us to get caught up in our own lines of thinking, but we have 10 or so people on the team for a reason, and we need to respect that any one of us can be more well versed in one area than another. Because of this, learning to deal with others in a more receptive way is something I certainly need to work on going forward, and I would hope that that trend leads others to do the same when I am the one throwing out the ideas.

My deck selection has steadily improved, Pro Tour to Pro Tour

Despite having access to the team’s testing, data collection, and deck lists before I started really working with them, I never used to use that information to play their deck, but rather build a different one that capitalized on some of the points. For Amsterdam for example, I was given the entire [card doran, the siege tower]Doran[/card] list going into the tournament, but built the Bant deck the night before the tournament instead, relying on last minute data collection. Obviously that choice worked out for me just fine, but things changed when I began actually working with the team.

For Worlds last year, I stepped out of my comfort zone and played Vampires. I did not do so because I wanted to, but rather because I forced myself to. It was awkward at times, and my heart was not in it, but I told myself I was doing the right things and that got me through the tournament. Needless to say, I felt I had met my quota by the time the Extended portion rolled around, and I played [card]Necrotic Ooze[/card] instead of 5 color control.

Paris came and I resorted to being a dummy once again. I had the best Standard deck of all time in my hands and I instead chose to play with Overwhelming Stampede… far from a wise decision. By Nagoya I had righted the ship a little bit. Tempered Steel was still the deck to play, but Mono Red was a close second, and I felt comfortable going against the grain, but not in too extreme a way. By Philadelphia though, I had come to my senses and decided to pilot the team deck. Of course, they pulled a fast one on me by switching at the last minute, but as far as I am concerned, it counted, and I had the support of the team. As for Worlds? Well, by the time you read this, I will have already played the same deck during the Standard portion, and I anticipate that being true for Modern as well, although I obviously cannot see into the future. In general though, I have gotten better about picking my spots and trusting the team when it comes to deck selection. It may have taken a full year to come around on this, but it should provide for much more than that in return.

I need to maximize my time better and use off-time to better effect

Since I have started working with the time, I have adjusted my work ethic to fit into the time we are together as opposed to the time I should be spending on the format or formats we need to work on. Before, I would spend weeks or months, brewing, tweaking, and researching the format day in and day out. Since the team has entered my life, it is much easier to fall into a sort of light switch mentality. Rather than working on a format whenever possible, it is as if I flip the switch when I am with the team and then turn it off when I am away.

This ultimately limits the overall amount of time I get to work on a format, which limits the total amount of progress I can make. It is easy to rely on my teammates, as they are all very good players, but in order to excel at what I do best, I need to know a format in and out and know what cards may be under-utilized day one of testing rather than having to spend hours and hours doing searching in the middle of days that we should be doing playtesting rather than research. We only get so many hours together prior to each pro tour, which makes sense, so maximizing that time by doing my homework ahead of time is something that I really look forward to doing for Honolulu and beyond.

Wrap Up

Of course, as with any self-improvement exercise, it would be quite daunting to list everything I thought I could work on or have improved on in the past year, but I think picking out some of the more prominent ones and focusing on them is a good and realistic way to start the new year off. If I find myself making better progress in these areas than I would have expected, I can go back into the tank and find additional things to work on, as that will not be a problem, but as the saying goes, step by step, day by day.

Conley Woods

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