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Owen’s a Win – A Cascading Failure

“Cascading failure” is a term I had never heard before until recently—The best way for me to describe it is to tell you the story of my first car accident.

It was amidst the worst winter Wisconsin had in many years and I was running some errands. I just finished the first stop I had to make and the roads were truly terrible out this day, I sent a text message to my girlfriend that said “do not drive ANYWHERE, the roads are horrible.” I had to make a decision, finish running my last errand which would be simple to do on any other day or just go straight home, I decided to keep driving. Not 5 minutes later I was rounding a corner on my way into a parking lot and I lost control of my vehicle and t-boned some poor guys brand new car that he had owned for exactly 1 week. In the end nobody was hurt and insurance covered the bulk of it so everything turned out to be alright. What was the direct cause of me losing control of my vehicle?

• I had bald tires that I knew needed to be replaced long before, and I just kept putting it off.

• The driving conditions were atrocious, I shouldn’t have even been driving that day.

• Given the conditions I was driving too fast. I should have been driving about 5-10 mph and I would estimate I was going about 15-20 and when it came time to stop I was sliding on the slushy icy roads and couldn’t stop.

• At the time I was a crappy driver.

• When I went to brake, I slammed on the brakes so hard I popped my brake line. The correct way to stop your vehicle in situations like this is to pump the brakes softly many different times. Stop, pause, stop, pause, stop. I did not know this.

They have done studies and this is basically how every car crash happens. Someone is on their cell phone, in an argument with their wife, the kids are out of control in the back seat. The causes that can contribute to this are countless. What does this have to do with Magic?

Well in my opinion this is basically exactly what happens when I do poorly in a Magic tournament and the opposite is true for when I do well in a Magic tournament.

Let’s take a look at GP Philadelphia—a tournament where I thought I was going to do pretty well but I went 1-3 in matches played and was out in the blink of an eye. Someone at the event actually asked me what happened and that was a new experience for me—to catalog the exact reasons why I think I did poorly.

• My pool was well below average. I must have done 15-20 practice Sealed Decks and this was solidly in my bottom 3, which alone doesn’t doom me to do poorly in the tournament. There have been occasions where I either made Day Two or gone 8-1 or even 9-0 with a deck I did not think was good, but starting out at a disadvantage hurt.

• I misbuilt my deck. Not by a ton but by a few cards for sure. I did correctly establish the right colors and I played all my best cards to give myself the greatest chance to win but I specifically chose not to include Mischief and Mayhem and Excoriate in favor of cards that did less for me. I don’t beat myself up about this one too badly since it’s extremely rare for a deck to be optimally constructed and play both of those cards, but a mistake is a mistake.

• I did not play well. I can think of two specific examples where I made misplays that either cost me the game or cost me having the game last more turns to see what could have happened. This stuff doesn’t usually happen in tournaments in which I do well. It’s not like I stone-cold punted but I played poorly and that’s on me.

• I got unlucky. This is just a fact of life that is totally separate from getting a bad pool. In games I often got opening hands or draws that just had a mix of lands and spells that weren’t very good together. I was green/white and many games I lost to cards that green/white can’t really ever deal with: Akroan Conscriptor, Forgestoker Dragon, Keepsake Gorgon, and Nemesis of Mortals. It does make one feel silly to lose to a Nemesis of Mortals when you’re hoping to topdeck an answer and your Excoriate is in your sideboard.

Funny enough it actually seems like whenever I do poorly in a tournament everything that can go wrong does and whenever I do well in a tournament it seems like everything that can go right does. This is true and it’s not true—it appears to be true because when I am playing very well I do everything in my power to give myself the best chance to topdeck a game-winning card in a losing position, while also giving myself the most draw steps to hit it. Some of the time I do draw it and it looks supremely lucky. Other times I don’t play well and I die before I would ever have a chance to get that lucky topdeck. On top of that, when I play a long tournament, purely by the product of playing more games I have more chance to see instances of luck occur, when I just take three quick losses I may have gotten lucky in future games but there are no future games, I lost and I’m out. It still remains true that to do well in a tournament you need to be lucky and when you do poorly it’s usually because you’re unlucky.

Access to even one copy of a card could change everything. In the last Pro Tour I played, I ran 1 copy of Rule of Law in my sideboard, and in a crucial match down the stretch I was paired against Jon Finkel and drew it in game 3 to win. Lucky? You’d better believe it’s lucky, but also I put that Rule of Law in my sideboard for a reason. I could have played four in my sideboard but I didn’t, because I knew that I only ever wanted to draw one copy of the card in any matchup, the sideboard slots had higher utility when used for other matches, Storm and Living End were going to be a very small percentage of the field, and I also knew that I could win a match against Storm in which I only drew Rule of Law one or zero times throughout. The matchup was so close that you only need a small push to put it over the top. I played against Storm in the earlier rounds of swiss against Ari Lax, and I won in three games despite never drawing my Rule of Law. A results-oriented thinker would point to these results and say I constructed my deck perfectly as I only ever needed 1 copy of Rule of Law across six games to come out on top against Storm, and that’s what happened.

Last-minute changes to a deck list are absurdly difficult to evaluate. Part of me knows that it’s reasonable to just lock in a deck list once you know you like your deck, because almost everything you know has already been decided once you get within a few days of the tournament. It’s not like playing one more Standard 8-man or one more Sealed Deck Daily event is really going to matter as long as you’re already adequately prepared. In fact, games of Magic have massively diminishing returns the more you play. The first 200 games are huge, but once you’ve played 2,000 games already the next 200 are close to worthless. I’m not saying you shouldn’t work hard and playtest before a big event but you shouldn’t overvalue recent events over something you know is tried and true over a much larger sample of games.

That said, you have the most information about your deck and the format as you have ever had before, so it would stand to reason that this would be the best time to make the most informed decision. While true, in my experience you need to be very careful not to go overboard. People like to feel smart by hearing a rumor rumbling across the tournament site and change their deck as a result. “I heard the dealers sold out of Scapeshift!” This could mean that everyone is playing Scapeshift or it could mean that the dealer didn’t bring very many. Also if a ton of people play a specific deck that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s in your best interest to metagame against it. Maybe you’re already pretty well set up against that matchup or it’s just a low-power inconsistent deck that won’t perform well in the tournament anyway so you won’t have to worry about it later on in the event. Maybe you have an awesome deck for the field but it just sucks against a deck that may end up being popular and there is no simple fix you can make to change that. People hate to just admit that they’re weak to a strategy, every Magic player feels the need to explain why a certain thing is going to happen and they love to say they beat a matchup. It simply doesn’t make a person feel smart or prepared to say that they are disadvantaged against a deck but sometimes that’s just the correct thing to do.

In a format like Modern especially, there are so many different decks that it’s literally impossible to have a favorable matchup against all of them unless you somehow break the format with an unknown combo deck, which to be honest basically never happens in this era of Magic. The history of Magic and my own results have taught me that it’s always better to have a good list and understanding of the format more than it is useful to devote my time to trying to break the format and have an off-the-wall combo deck that nobody expects. Plus it’s just much more difficult to do because when you make a combo deck you need to have consistent mana, a high power level, and an almost entirely unexpected strategy. Often I cook up a cool combo deck idea and it falls horribly to cards that are already commonly sideboarded. For the Player’s Championship a few years ago, Reid and I wanted to test a burn deck and when we matched it up against a stock blue/white control list it floundered in the face of cards like Mana Leak and Kitchen Finks. It was comical how bad the deck was against even the most simple form of disruption.

The most simple lesson that you can take away from this article is that you can learn from a bad result in a tournament, and to not overprepare the day before a tournament, because who you are as a player and what you know about the format has largely already been decided by the work you have already done.

Owen Turtenwald
qazwsxedcrfvtgbyhnuj on Magic Online
OwenTweetenwald on twitter

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