In my last article I wrote about being willing to improve my own play—something I take very seriously. At Grand Prix Denver I finished with a record of 12-3 playing Abzan Aggro, the same 75 as William Jensen who made the Top 8.
The truth about Magic is that it’s one of the most complex games in the world, and even the best players will make mistakes. What makes them the best is that they make those mistakes less often, they’re less likely to make mistakes that decide the game, and the way they adjust once they’ve made a mistake. I’ve had opponents misclick against me on Magic Online and just straight-up concede the game rather than play on in a game where they’ve made a gross error. It takes mental toughness to play on despite looking foolish, but that’s what makes the greats great. You can’t take your remaining life points with you to the next match so you might as well use them.
Given that, I wanted to take a look at a tournament I played in and chronicle every mistake one-by-one and examine why I made them and what I should have done.
Let’s start with round 8 against Sam Wolloch playing UW Heroic. My opening hand on the draw for game one is:
I had no information about what my opponent was playing and I thought for a while before deciding to keep. It’s reasonable to keep 1-land hands on the draw that have scry lands and some action, but there are a ton of flaws with this hand. It was attractive to me because if I did draw a large number of lands in a row I could curve well from 2 through 5.
What I did not fully take into account with this hand is that since my land for the Thoughtseizes comes into play tapped and I’m on the draw, I have no reasonable answer to a creature that would come into play on turn two, making this hand especially weak in the mirror due to Fleecemane Lion and Rakshasa Deathdealer. It’s also worth noting that since I chose to play a deck that wins based on the strength of its fast starts and I do not have that, I’m sacrificing some of my edge.
When you play this deck, you should mulligan until you get a fast hand. In the end I think this is a loose keep but definitely not egregious. I kept and my opponent was on Heroic, so I Thoughtseized both of the creatures he drew and he didn’t cast a single spell.
My next mistakes came in game two of this match. The board state looked like this:
I had just taken my fourth turn, in which I drew and decided not to attack with my Rakshasa Deathdealer. My hand contained:
My hand was great and my #1 priority at this point in the game was to survive so that I could cast as many of the high-powered cards in my hand as possible. I felt like I could not lose if the game lasted more than a few more turns.
I had a decision this turn: should I attack with Rakshasa Deathdealer? I could try to block and regenerate, but this uses my mana very poorly.
There’s an infinitely small chance that my opponent chooses not to attack just because I might block and regenerate, leaving his creature tapped and unable to block. Not getting attacked would be a great result, but as I said, that’s very unlikely to happen.
If I were to chump-block I could cast Hero’s Downfall on his turn, then Hero’s Downfall, on my turn and with the Thoughtseize and Rakshasa Deathdealer already in my graveyard if I were to topdeck a land I could also have access to Murderous Cut. If I knew my top card was a land, this is probably the safest play that leads to a long game the most often, the kind of game I usually win in this matchup. The cost of chump-blocking is pretty low since I have another Rakshasa Deathdealer in hand anyway.
In the end I decided not to attack with the intention of chump-blocking, he drew Ordeal of Thassa, and when it came time to block I just took 5 down to 4. I did so because I didn’t want to prevent 5 damage in a situation where I would just take 9 on a future attack.
Taking 9 seemed like a real possibility, given that each time I Hero’s Downfall his guy and he protects it with Gods Willing, it gets bigger as a result of heroic. Once I Downfall it twice and he uses two Gods Willing I could just die to a Defiant Strike, so chumping to prevent 5 while I’m at 9 to later just take lethal on one attack is a disaster. Feat of Resistance and Aqueous Form are considerations here since they complicate the damage race and blocking. I was less worried about Gods Willing being used to prevent me from blocking, so it’s unlikely he has three of those to stop my two Downfalls and force his guy through my blocker.
So, I chose not to attack and I had a good reason for that, then when it came time to block I decided not to block, with what also seemed like a good reason. I didn’t attack with my creature to deal damage and I didn’t use it to block, which is unacceptable. Your creatures need to be doing something.
I think the correct play was to attack and chump next turn, so I lost 2 damage by being indecisive. My misplay did not end up costing me, since my second Hero’s Downfall just resolved and his creature died. He never cast another spell.
I also felt I made a mistake when I cast my second Hero’s Downfall on his 5/9 Trailblazer, since if I had used Abzan Charm I could later use Hero’s Downfall on a 2/2 creature. It’s rare this would ever matter in a game, but it’s not out of the question.
It sure seemed like I made a lot of mistakes here—but they’re all very small and the reality is I picked a good deck, I had a solid plan for the matchup, and I played well enough to win. I’m OK with that, as long as I learn from them.
My next error came on Day Two when I was playing an Abzan Aggro mirror match. It was game three and I was in a commanding position, I controlled (all untapped) Fleecemane Lion, Caves of Koilos, Llanowar Wastes, Temple of Malady, Temple of Silence, and Sandsteppe Citadel. My hand was Temple of Silence, Mana Confluence, Wingmate Roc, and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. I had already played my land for the turn and I attacked with Fleecemane Lion.
My opponent controls an untapped Fleecemane Lion and four tapped lands. He blocks.
The most natural and obvious play is to monstrous Fleecemane here. I thought for a long time about what to do because I badly wanted to just cast Wingmate Roc with raid since that’s the best thing you can do in the mirror. I intentionally played my fifth land before I attacked so my opponent would be discouraged from blocking.
After a long think, I decided to just trade off the Lions so I could resolve Wingmate Roc. I liked being able to slam the Roc and have Elspeth up for next turn, it felt like if I just got ahead I could win before my opponent was able to use all the cards in his hand well. I also had seen Elspeth out of his deck so I knew a monstrous Fleecemane Lion wouldn’t be game over as he could just make tokens to block it all day.
One of the largest reasons why I feel this was an error is that it’s so unlikely my opponent will have Thoughtseize in his deck to punish me for holding the Wingmate Roc in a sideboarded game. Additionally, after combat he has no creatures in play and will be unable to raid a Wingmate Roc himself.
The game played out such that he killed the Roc and its token with Abzan Charm and Murderous Cut. My next draw steps were another Wingmate Roc and Sorin, Solemn Visitor so I won pretty easily. I had a good reason for why I didn’t monstrous, but I think because it’s so unlikely he still has Thoughtseize in his deck by that point in the match that it’s an error to not play more conservatively.
Sometimes the most obvious play is correct pretty often.
When you play 12 matches of Magic, mistakes are bound to happen, nobody can play perfectly all the time. I’m happy I made as few as I did. Still, it’s worthwhile to take inventory of these plays and try to be more thoughtful in the future. If you don’t think you’re making mistakes when you play, you’re lying to yourself. The only true way to improve is to look at your play under the harshest lens possible—then don’t be embarrassed, just adapt.
Making good decisions is more valuable than not feeling stupid about admitting to your weak plays.
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[Editor’s note: Misplay #4 was updated to clarify that Owen’s opponent’s 4 lands were tapped.]