Next weekend is Pro Tour M15. The Pro Tour is always the best time of the year and the closest I’ll get to the feelings I had as a child on Christmas Eve. Right now I’m in Portland, Oregon in a Ski Lodge with some of the best players in the world trying to prepare and have a little fun. It’s always a tough dance to try and enjoy yourself as much as you can while also making good use of your time. It’s especially hard for me, as I can think of times in the past when I knew I did as much as I could possibly do, but solely because I did poorly in the final event, I would blame my preparation. Pro Tour San Diego comes to mind, I had cooked up a great draft strategy and I had a solid Constructed deck. The draft went perfectly and I had an aggressive Boros deck with Boros Reckoner and Wrecking Ogre. I rattled off a quick 0-3 before stumbling around in Constructed and making a quick exit. I was winning a lot in draft and I know my strategy was good, but you really can do everything right and still lose, it’s hard to wrap your head around that sometimes.
I know one of my biggest flaws as a player is results-oriented thinking, and I try my best to look at things objectively but it’s human nature to see something happen and believe that it’s an accurate representation of what will happen in the future. I try to pat myself on the back when I make a decision in spite of what has previously happened, only to have it work out later. If I were to lose a game because I drew too many of a certain card in a matchup, not sideboard any of them out, and have them perform in the last game, I’d know I was on the right track. I can’t count the number of times at the local card shop I have watched people lose a game due to mana-screw and then immediately sideboard in a land. This is dangerous thinking. If you’re wrong you hurt your chances of winning the next game. Bad decisions begin to snowball in matches of Magic.
That being said, I will say it’s very difficult to see a difference between a good player siding in or out a land for a specific reason versus a bad player siding in our out a land based on the land ratio drawn in his previous game. It’s pretty rare in Limited that I construct a game 1 deck with 17 lands and then sideboard up to 18 based on the matchup, but I often sideboard down to 16. It’s great to take lands out of your deck when you know you will be on the draw or if you know games will last a while. The 17 land rule is to ensure that you get 4 or 5 lands by turn five and that your deck can function, but it isn’t a hard and fast rule. Great players know when to deviate and why.
I was really put to the test at Grand Prix DC recently in Sealed Deck. I had an exceptionally deep pool with tons of options, and up until time ran out in registration I was deciding between a green/red aggressive deck or a blue/black controlling deck and both decks had merit.
The first with Nessian Wilds Ravager, Revel of the Fallen God, and Harness by Force; and the other with Master of Waves and Hero’s Downfall. I played six rounds of Magic and each time I lost the first game I had to take a long hard look at the information I gained based on my opponent’s deck and how they might match up against either deck. If you can find even a small edge it’s great to switch colors in Sealed Deck, yet each time I stuck to my guns and didn’t switch decks. It’s hard to lose a game and stick with what you’ve been shown is a “losing” strategy, and on top of that if you lose again you have to question why you didn’t give yourself the best chance to win by swapping into your other deck. Periodically throughout the day I would show my pool to my friends and ask “I have Master of Waves and Hero’s Downfall in my sideboard, what are the odds I built my deck correctly?” I got mixed results there but almost everyone said either deck was reasonable and the people whose opinions I care about the most said it was totally fine to build it how I did.
One of the ways I have grown the most as a player is in knowing to trust my own instincts and not blindly follow those of others. I have tried to follow others blindly before, and it will work occasionally, but in the end it’s a high variance plan that relies on luck and not skill or intuition. Usually when I wonder what other people would think of a play or decision I’m about to make, I’m already doomed. If you watch the best players in the world play they play confidently and know exactly what they want to do every step of the way. They’re wrong sometimes and they still make mistakes, they’re not infallible, but they never doubt themselves and that is key. Recently in the house we had a discussion about if you have ever thought to yourself: “I’m going to make this play and I think everyone in the room will disagree with me but I know it’s right.” Everyone agreed they have thought that many times, and even better Matt Costa said he would be shocked if anyone admitted to never thinking it. What it means is that each of the players in the house know exactly what I’m describing now, that trusting yourself is far better than trusting others.
I think the worst stretch of matches I ever had was at a point where I wasn’t preparing at all for events and just copying deck lists. It was odd because somehow there were four Grand Prix all in a row week after week after week and I attended each.
The Platinum appearance fee at the time was $500 and it was at the start of the season. I had zero Pro Points and the cap didn’t exist,so it was “free” to go to each event and greatly in my best interest.
Well, I had been experiencing some major burnout on the tournament scene and it’s impossible to adequately prepare for each event give the amount of time spent traveling and days needed for rest. I went to four Grand Prix in a row, I copied someone else’s deck list each time, and I went 0-12 in matches played. Each time I showed up, collected my three byes, lost three matches in a row and dropped. That is ridiculously hard to do. Even if you run bad and play poorly it’s still hard to not luck into a win once in twelve shots.
I feel like I have improved drastically as a player since then but to lose at that rate is insane. The kiss of death was really that it was a new format every week, and I had to change my mindset for each event. On top of that, as I explained, I was kind of just showing up and going through the motions which is very bad. Since then I have tried to reinvigorate my own testing process and try very hard for each event, no matter how little I think it might matter. Since then, I have also noticed a huge spike in my own results and in a way I’m being rewarded for rededicating myself to the game. I try to do everything I can to improve even if I look silly questioning the basics along the way.
I think one thing that goes along with the results-oriented thinking I explained earlier and the biggest mistake people make in tournament preparation is the lack of appreciation for a large sample size. I see it constantly and it’s toxic to any environment where succeeding at Magic is the goal.
If you think the outcome of five games of Magic is anything but pure randomness then you’re wrong. If you think ten games is an accurate representation of what will happen in the next 100 games then you’re stone-cold wrong again. I don’t know what a true valuable sample size looks like, but I know it’s very big, I would estimate closer to 50 games is about right. If you play two draft decks against one another and deck A beats deck B 7-3 it could mean anything. If deck B just mulliganed to five and got mana-screwed twice then it may have looked much closer otherwise. I’ve seen people play three games with a deck, lose them all, and give up. That’s crazy to me. It may be a blow to your confidence to lose a few games in a row but you can’t let that taint your results and although results oriented thinking is poison for the preparing Magic player you don’t have a whole lot to go on besides the results.
It’s very important to not focus on the actual number of games won and lost but rather to get a feel for the power of the cards and how you think they play in the matchup. I can’t count the number of times I have lost more games than I won but still felt like I should be massively advantaged in a matchup. Even in tournaments, I will lose a match but know I did everything I could to give myself the best chance to win. It’s bad to blame your losses on luck, there isn’t much to be learned from that, but sometimes you do lose and sometimes you get unlucky. It would be foolish to not consider it an option, and often it’s not only an option but it’s the single most likely excuse.
And now, back to grinding away at Standard, wish me luck at the PT next weekend!
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