Breaking Through – Learning to Leap

It’s Monday before the Grand Prix. You have been working on your sweet brew for the past two weeks and gotten in countless games via Magic Online. Your sideboard is well tuned and you know your matchups. All you have to do now is make those finishing touches and show up to collect your trophy!

It’s Wednesday night before the Grand Prix. You stumbled upon that bad matchup again. You just can’t seem to beat it. You have only played against it a handful of times out of hundreds of games, but it just seems to be your kryptonite. You currently have nothing special for it in your sideboard, but you are beginning to wonder if that is the correct choice. Even if this deck is only 5% of the field, you don’t just want automatic losses floating around! Right?

It’s Thursday night before the Grand Prix. You have added 3 cards to your sideboard to help out in that horrific matchup you encountered. You decided that shaving some of your sweepers from the board would be fine, as your aggro matchup has been pretty good thus far. You test your kryptonite match up with these changes and find yourself winning a few more games. You are not a favorite, by any means, but you could take this 35-65 matchup to the bank. At least we have a fighting chance.

It’s Friday afternoon before the Grand Prix. You arrive in Baltimore and head over to a friend’s house for some testing. He is on White Weenie, a matchup with which you feel very comfortable. You are surprised, then, when it turns out that you are not winning any of the sideboarded games. You used to crush this matchup and now you are barely even, if that! Something has to change.

It’s Friday night before the Grand Prix. You confidence in your brew is hanging on by a thread. Despite all of the time and effort you put into the creation, a few rocks in your shoe have really made you question taking this thing to the big show. It is not so much that you do not trust what you have discovered thus far, but more that you fear all that you have yet to discover. As midnight quickly approaches, your friends finally convince you to pick up that Esper deck that no one else has claimed.

It’s Saturday morning the day of the Grand Prix. As you finish writing down your four copies of Detention Sphere, you note that your uncertainty has not diminished, but only shifted its focus. Now you find yourself questioning whether you should be running that fourth copy or Supreme Verdict in the main deck, or the sideboard. You question whether your brew was right all along.

It’s Saturday night after Day 1 of the Grand Prix. You find yourself on the outskirts of Day 2. Maybe it was the two rounds you boarded incorrectly, or maybe it was that round you drew Fated Retribution instead of what should have been the 4th copy of Supreme Verdict. Maybe it was that match you lost to the deck that was formerly your brew’s kryptonite. Or maybe it was that one match on Magic Online last Wednesday. Some type of butterfly effect or something like that. Damn you Ashton!

Change and Commitment

Think back and tell me a time in which you had no doubt about a specific tournament or deck. I am not saying this sarcastically, as I am sure it has happened to most Magic players, but think about the frequency that it has happened. Personally, I can remember a handful of tournaments for which I was supremely confident in the deck I registered. Even then, I am sure I questioned a card choice or sideboard slot in the midnight hour, but it was a minor enough detail that I never lost confidence in my deck or chances in the tournament.

A handful of tournaments is less than 1% of all tournaments I have ever attended though. What about those other 99% of tournaments? Did I have doubt in my deck? Of course! It would be almost inhuman not to. The issue is that some amount of the time this is due to your deck being a poor choice, but most of the time, this is due to you being a human and fearing uncertainty.

When you show up to your high school basketball state championship as a player, you probably feel a little nervous. This is perfectly healthy in a big moment. The outcome can determine many different things. This same is true in most Magic tournaments, except there is one big difference about that state championship for basketball. You can’t change anything.

Sure, you can decide you don’t want to play, but outside of that, all that nervousness builds until that moment the whistle blows and the ball is thrown into the air. As a competitor, I am sure many of you know the weight that comes off of your shoulders when the event finally begins. Whether it be soccer, or chess, or a costume contest. The second you know there is no turning back is the second you get to live in that moment and all the stress and nervousness that built up fades as you return to your element. But again, it is in that awkward phase of nervousness and stress where the issues come up.

Again, in basketball, it is just about making it to the other side. Maybe you need to watch your diet during that time, or meet an exercise regimen, but as crunch time nears, there is not much you can do that will jeopardize your chances at success. If you decide to get black-out drunk the night before your state championship, you are negatively impacting your chances at the championship, but you know that. You were never mislead into thinking that drinking that much would help you. Maybe you were convinced that the amount of fun you would have would outweigh the negative hit to your chances at the trophy, but you never thought it would directly benefit you.

Go back to that Wednesday before the Grand Prix. Did you think helping to improve your kryptonite matchup would hurt your tournament chances? Of course not! You were actually trying to do the exact opposite of just that. Here you are making decisions that are masked as good, but can easily just be bad for you? How fair is that?

Certainly Uncertain

This is where the intricacy of Magic becomes clear. You are playing a guessing game. You can develop a very educated and informed guess, but even at your best, there is a chance you are wrong. And if you are indeed wrong, there is no chance to correct mid-tournament the way that you could change your defensive scheme or run a different play on offense in basketball.

This makes Magic very interesting when it comes to that stage of nervousness and stress that normally just means we find what we are about to do both challenging and exciting. During this time, we set the stage for that championship game. We handpick the players that will be involved. We decide the playbook, the coach, the speed at which we want to play. We are in control of so many variables and we make these decisions despite heightened stress and tension. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

You experience this feeling at other times in life. When you were ready to pick what college you went to, you weighed your options, made a decision, and went with it. When you asked that person out on a date, your heartbeat increasing rapidly with each step toward them, you presented your piece and then allowed the rest to run its course.

As a brewer, you need to be willing to make the leap sometimes and effectively ignore that building sense of uncertainty. This does not mean you should play bad decks intentionally, but it means you should put some faith into the results and progress you made when things were a little more calm and collected. You tested for two weeks and came to a lot of great conclusions and card choices, but yet a single idea or game is able to throw you off of all of those findings?

Was this game or idea you had so supreme that it should be valued so highly above all of your other thoughts, ideas, or games? Or is the only difference with this idea, or this game, the fact that it occurred closer to the tournament? That it came during crunch time? That panic may be playing a role in your desire to fix the situation?

There are many reasons that people choose to play established decks at tournaments. Maybe the person did not have time to come up with something new or maybe that person’s strengths do not lie in deckbuilding. But the deck has less uncertainty.

The list is more certain, as it is 75 neatly-constructed cards that I can know I am playing. The matchups are more certain as there is a tuned sideboard with a guide right here for me. The merit of the deck is more certain as I know it put 2 people into the Top 8 of last week’s Grand Prix. Even the feedback I get from my friends is more certain as no one is going to make fun of me for choosing Esper as my weapon of choice. That certainty feels good and it feels safe, but that does not necessarily make it better.

Certainty comes with boundaries. That weak matchup Esper has? It’s still going to be weak if you do everything else the same. That sideboarding strategy that sort of kind of works but isn’t perfect? Yep, still going to be just enough to get you by, but little more. Certainty has a ceiling. Some of the time, even most, we are going to be OK with that ceiling because our desired results fall below it, but with uncertainty comes the possibility of boundlessness.

With uncertainty, I risk falling well short of my goal or surpassing it in ways I could never imagine. It is the foundation of the saying, “Higher risk, higher reward.” I am not advocating that it is always correct to venture into the world of uncertainty. Sometimes it is good to know your schedule when you wake up or to know what dish you are working toward with a list of ingredients. Stability is important too. But if you never allow yourself to take the plunge and commit to something that others might feel is uncertain, you never develop the tools or the willingness to take that plunge in the future.

Every tournament is going to present you with a unique set of conditions and being able to have a range with which to take on all comers is extremely valuable.

There was a time where I would take “The Plunge” each and every tournament. I would build some brew and then lower my head until I burst through the door, whenever it may appear. Sometimes that door showed up just a few rounds into the tournament and a lame Day 2 awaited me. Sometimes that door showed up after an amazing Top 8 run with a trophy in full view. But the problem was that I had grown so comfortable with this “anything goes” style of deckbuilding and play that it has actually become my safety net. I did not feel comfortable playing a net deck. I had flipped the script but was still filming the same movie.

I think I was afraid of the expectations that come with playing a known deck. To fail with something that has succeeded before is to fail without an excuse. That is a vulnerable place to be. Many mages know the feeling very well and have embraced it, but I had not. I needed to be willing to break the mold and become more well rounded.

Wrap Up

I wish you the will and strength to venture from your comfort zone. In Magic, and in life, there are lessons to learn and rewards to be gained.

It is Wednesday night before the Grand Prix. You stumbled upon that bad matchup again. You just can’t seem to beat it. You have only played against it a handful of times out of hundreds of games, but it just seems to be your kryptonite. You currently have nothing special for it in your sideboard, but you are beginning to wonder if that is the correct choice. Even if this deck is only 5% of the field, you don’t just want automatic losses floating around! Right?

You win.

Conley Woods


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