Over the course of our life, we experience things with various degrees of importance. The most mundane we often don’t remember (though some people have an uncanny ability to remember the most useless stuff *cough* me *cough*). Some of the important ones we remember, again with various degrees. And then there are those that are very important to us, that helped shaping us the way we are – those situations we can see on our minds, crystal clear, as if they had happened two minutes ago – we can even hear the voices in our heads.
In Magic, it is no different – most of the interactions we have, in a game or outside one, we will forget. Some, however, will be the key to shaping us the way we are today, will be the source of our beliefs and behaviors. Today I am going to talk a little about six important stories that shaped me as a Magic player, so that maybe you can draw the same lesson that I’ve drawn from them, and perhaps understand a little more about why I think the way I think.
The Lord of the Pit Story
A while after I started playing, my mom gave me a [card]Lord of the Pit[/card] for Children’s Day. I was delighted – it was by far the biggest creature any of my friends had, and I quickly added it to my deck. Sometimes, I get the impression that people think competitive players have no idea what it is like to be a non competitive player – most people think I don’t understand, for example, why cards like [card]Sliver Queen[/card] and [card]Doubling Season[/card] are printed and sought after, but I do; I started playing Magic when I was very young and I was also enthralled by cards like those. This also means I understand the appeal of Werewolves – I merely think it is not worth the cost, but that’s neither here nor there.
Anyway, back to [card]Lord of the Pit[/card]… for a long while I was happy with it. Then I started getting better, and it started to seem like that [card]Lord of the Pit[/card] was not going to cut it. A guy offered me to trade it for four [card]Black Knight[/card]s. I refused, of course – not only was [card]Lord of the Pit[/card], well, [card]Lord of the Pit[/card], but my mom had bought it for me – how on earth am I going to trade a gift away? She would never forgive me, I was going to play with it forever!
But then, the time came when it became clear that [card]Lord of the Pit was[/card] really not going to cut it. And my deck could kind of use those [card]Black Knight[/card]s. I knew I had to make a choice, and that choice would help defining me as a Magic player. I chose the [card]Black Knight[/card]s.
Moral of the Story: If your priority is winning, then act it.
Oh, don’t get me wrong – it is perfectly fine to choose the [card]Lord of the Pit[/card] – it was just not who I was, it did not match what I aspired to be. What is not fine, though, is to lie to yourself – if you choose the [card]Lord of the Pit[/card], know that this is the path you’re choosing to follow; many people think of themselves as competitive but when the time comes they will choose their weapons based on criteria that should not be taken into consideration, such as “this card is different”, “this is my pet card”, etc. If you are in the competitive world and you think like that, it will cost you.
The Delusions of Mediocrity Story
Brazilian Nationals, 2002. I was walking around when I eavesdropped a conversation between two players, one of which I considered very good at the time. The other player asked him “if you have [card]Delusions of Mediocrity[/card] in your hand against an aggro deck, it’s turn four and you are not in much danger, do you play it?” The good guy very quickly answered “Of course not; If you play it early, they will play to deal you 30 damage. If you don’t play it, they play to deal 20 – they make suicidal attacks, they attempt to burn you when you’re tapped out, they throw away cards for damage; It’s much better to hold it”.
Moral of the Story: Information is worth a lot, don’t give it to your opponent for free.
Of course, back then I already knew information was important and blah blah, but before this conversation I don’t think I ever truly grasped how meaningful it was, and what lengths you should go to in an attempt to conceal what you have. After this conversation, I started seeing “information” everywhere – everything I did gave my opponent information, but it was more than that – everything I didn’t do gave them information too, and I also started to absorb a lot more.
I think people don’t truly understand how powerful information is in a game of Magic, and how much it is actually worth; every time you take damage from a creature and then kill it at the end of the turn instead of killing it during combat, you are paying for information with life points. First, you don’t know if that guy is your best target, so you wait until you have more information. Second, they don’t know you are killing it! This changes their entire plan, and might make up for the life you loss in spades. For example, imagine you’re playing Solar Flare and your opponent bashes you with a random 3/3. You have a [card]Doom Blade[/card] in your hand, but you take three damage. Now, it is conceivable that your opponent decides to not play his second 3/3, because he might play around [card]Day of Judgment[/card] – in that case, if you [card]Doom Blade[/card] it at the end of the turn, you not only gain your three life back next turn but you also gain tempo because he has to spend his turn replaying the guy. If you wait, he might fear [card]Mana Leak[/card] and not play another guy this turn, and the outcome is the same. In Limited, if you wait with BBBUU open instead of playing [card]Victim of Night[/card], they might not run their second guy out there due to fearing [card]Lost in the Mist[/card] – etc, etc. In all those scenarios, it is worth to pay with your life (dramatic uh?) to deny the opponent information.
The Teferis Story
It is 2006, Pro Tour Kobe; I had just gotten second at Charleston and won Brazilian Nationals, so you could say I thought very highly of myself at the time. The format was Time Spiral Draft, and I was very happy with my first pick of [card]Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir[/card], which was very good in that format because, other than the obvious implications of making combat hell for your opponent, he also killed Suspend. I did not see a lot of Blue after that in pack one, though, and by the end of it I had the [card Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir]Teferi[/card], another Blue card and everything else was Green. Then, in pack two, I got another [card Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir]Teferi[/card]! I scooped it up and the trend continued – I saw like one extra Blue card, and a lot of Green. Pack three ended up with the same and by the end of the draft I had like 6 Blue cards and the rest Green.
I sat for deckbuilding and stared at those [card Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir]Teferis[/card], with their 2UUU casting cost; as much as I wanted to play them, as powerful as they were, I knew I wouldn’t be able to – the mana just wouldn’t work out. As appealing as they were, I was a Pro Player now, I had big aspirations, and I had to act like one – it was time to grow up.
I played the Blue, since some of the cards were good, but the [card Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir]Teferis[/card] stayed in the board due to my 11-6 mana base. In the end, I was very proud of my decision – I had shown maturity, I was acting on logic rather than emotion.
Then I went and showed my deck to Willy, and explained the situation, gleaming with pride at my self-control – most people certainly wouldn’t have been able to resist it, but I had. I expected him to praise me for my exceptional restraint – to say something like “wow I never expected this of you, I guess you really are becoming one of the best”. Instead, as he heard it, he stared at me and asked “what, two Teferis, you are blue and not playing them, are you an idiot?”
Moral of the story: Play for yourself, not for the crowd.
Sometimes, as you improve, you will be tempted to prove it, to yourself or to others. You will be tempted to make what we like to call the “pro play”, or the “pro pick” – something that is not what you want to do but what you feel is now expected of you, and you have to hold to that standard. Don’t. Most of the time, you’re just fooling yourself – it is correct to be greedy sometimes, and other times it is correct to be conservative, and it has to come natural to you, it should not be forced. In this situation, I clearly should have stretched my mana base a little and played the two bombish creatures – they were certainly worth the cost and it’s not like I needed 11 Forests to begin with. I went 1-2 in this draft, including losing to, oh the irony, a [card Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir]Teferi[/card], and then I sided Teferis and Islands in every round and they were very good. Nowadays, I just do what I think is right – I don’t have a lot of regard for what people are going to think of it, for how Pro I am going to look.
Often, when there are a ton of people watching, especially people you respect and want approval from, it’s hard to control it – you want to appear good to them, you want them to be impressed. Even nowadays, I feel like I am prone to making more mistakes than normal in those situations, and I imagine everyone else is the same – the moment you start thinking about things like “I wonder if those people are going to be impressed with this play”, you start missing obvious on board tricks.
The same is true when you make a bad play – the best thing to do is to just admit it and move on. For example, imagine you are playing against LSV in a GP – it is turn six, and your hand is land and [card]Silverchase Fox[/card]. You draw [card]Angelic Overseer[/card] and quickly scan his board, seeing Island, Forest, Plains and [card]Stensia Bloodhall[/card] untapped (and if you’ve ever seen one of his sample hands you know this is a very plausible scenario) – the coast is clear, you’d better play it before he can draw the second Island and cast the [card]Dissipate[/card] that he surely has! You slam it into play, and it is met with a grim and a [card]Frightful Delusion[/card]. You stare at the land in your hand – aaaawkward. Normally, in this situation, you’d discard the land, but you’re playing against LSV – if you discard the land, he will know you simply forgot to play it and threw the game away – he will never respect you, he will talk about how he “beat a scrub who forgot to play the land”. Hey, the Fox is not going to do much anyway, right? Better to discard it and keep him in the dark as to what you have – maybe you draw a six drop anyway. Yes, surely you can afford to keep the land – you might even appear superflooded in a turn or two, which would provide a good excuse as to why you lost – instead of saying “I beat an idiot”, he is going to tell his friends that he “beat a guy who got flooded” – sounds much better.
So, after agonizing about it, you discard the Fox. He then draws his second Island, plays [card]Claustrophobia[/card] on your biggest guy and kills you in two turns, because you don’t have the Fox to counter it. You do have a land, though – hey, at least he thought you were flooded. This might seem like an absurd scenario, but it really is not – once people realize they’ve made a mistake, they will go to great lengths to conceal it, even if that means making another mistake – I’ve seen it done by decent players in high profile tournaments. You should not do it – if you’ve made a mistake, shrug and accept it – we’ve all made mistakes – play your best from now on, instead of getting caught in a snowball of mistakes to try and justify them.
The Pro Tour Austin Story
Throughout my competitive years, the amount I’ve playtested has varied drastically – sometimes I practice for a month, sometimes for a week and sometimes not at all. Austin was one of the tournaments I’ve practiced more in my entire life; early on, I found a deck that I wanted to play (the [card]Dark Depths[/card] / [card]Vampire Hexmage[/card] combo) and I tuned it, and practiced with it more and more. By the time the tournament came, I had what I considered to be a very good list, and I was playing extremely well – I honestly don’t think I’ve ever played better on average at the course of a tournament, at least the constructed portion. Perhaps a bystander wouldn’t be able to notice the difference, but I certainly could – it was different and I was playing better, calculating everything turns in advance, making the optimal decisions, figuring out the reasons for their plays – it was a very good feeling.
Moral of the Story – practice really does bring perfection
This might seem like a silly story, and perhaps it is, but it was instrumental in shaping who I am now because it showed me that playing really makes a difference. I respond very well to incentive, I have to see results, to know that what I am doing is not being wasted, and Austin showed me, once and for all, that it was not. Austin was not the only tournament in which it happened, though it was the most striking difference – I can certainly go back and point the tournaments I think I’ve played well at and the tournaments I think I’ve played badly, and they correlate a lot with the amount of practice that I’ve had. So, practice! You might think it’s useless, because at some point you’ve practiced a lot and lost to a horrible player and in another tournament you didn’t practice at all and beat everyone, but you can certainly tell in which one you played better, and in the long run you will of course do better when you play better, it is not a waste.
The Elves Story
PT Berlin, 2008. The format of the PT was Extended, and I decided I was going to test a lot, since there is a lot to be gained in the “old” open formats that offer more possibilities. Among the decks my friends played against me, there was an Elf deck – a bunch of [card]Nettle Sentinel[/card]s, [card]Heritage Druid[/card]s, [card]Glimpse of Nature[/card] and [card]Twinblade Slasher[/card]. I immediately deemed it unplayable – a bunch of mana Elves and [card]Fireball[/card]s, how old were they, 13?
Soon after, the deck became more and more popular. I finally agreed to play against it, and we played three games before I concluded that yep, I was right, it was actually unplayable. I never played against it again. By the time we got to Berlin, Carlos had decided to play it – I, again, ignored it. Glimpses ended up being sold out and very sought after, so I conceded two of my sideboard slots for the matchup and that was it. Of course, Elves ended up being like the best performing deck ever, putting 6 in the top 8 with Luis winning the whole tournament.
Moral of the Story: You are not always right; sometimes, it is useful to take some time to challenge your preconceived notions.
The problem here was twofold – first, that I think I am a good judge of decks, and generally if I think a deck is very bad it is very bad. Second, that most people are too easily excitable about something new – they very much want it to be good because it is different, so they fool themselves. However, it is not because it is often the case that it is always the case; here, the cost of finding it out was actually very minimal, and even then I decided not to do it – I was going to a Pro Tour and I couldn’t spend half an hour of my day to test with or against the deck that everyone said was very good, because I thought I knew better, and that cost me.
The other problem is that the deck as it was presented to me was very rough – it had many flaws that I identified, so I just dismissed it without looking at the possibilities – what I should have done was to try to figure out how to remove those flaws to end up with a good deck like everyone else. Sure, sometimes the flaws are too much, but you need to find a balance – you can’t look only at the flaws, since there is a very big difference between something that is bad and something that is just very rough and in its early stages.
The Julien Nuijten Story
It’s 2004 – I was 16, and I played actively in Magic-League, the then apprentice/IRC based league from where you see decklists now and then. One of the people who also played there (and was good) was Julien Nuijten, a boy from the Netherlands who was a year younger than me. I remember reading the coverage for Dutch Nationals and finding out that he was something like 2-3, which is, well, very bad – you need to win out and hope to get there on tiebreakers. A day later, I check and he is 7-3 – not bad, not bad, maybe he has a shot. Then, a couple hours later, I check again and he is the top 8, then the top 4, then 3rd.
I met Julien at Worlds in San Francisco that year (insert random rant about how we’re never going to have Worlds again) – we talked a bit, but not much. Then he won Worlds! ssjsfhsfhasfhs
Moral of the Story: never give up when you still have a shot.
The lesson I learned here is that it is possible to do well even if you have a horrible start; it is possible to lose your first three matches for whatever reason and then win everything else, and you have to keep that in mind – no “oh it’s my unlucky day” mentality, or “my sealed deck can’t win a match I will just drop” – just no. Julien won that Worlds championship because he did not have that mentality, because he did not give up in his mind once he was 2-3 at Dutch nationals – he not only won every match at Nationals after that but also every match at Worlds. He got what is arguably the biggest honor in Magic with a 2-3 start, and if he did it that means it’s doable and you can do it too.
This story kept coming to my mind when I started 0-2 in San Juan – I was devastated, since I thought we had an awesome deck and I had been very unlucky the first two rounds. At this point, why bother? Clearly I am not going to win, it is just not worth it… but I remembered Julien in 04 and how you can always win-out. And I won out! If I could do it, so can you – a 0-2 start sucks, but it is not the end of the world, the world only ends when you’re out of contention, so lift that head and go play to the best of your abilities.
Well, this is it for today – I hope you’ve enjoyed it and that you were able to absorb something from those stories the way I absorbed when they happened. Now it’s time to go back to playing Standard for Worlds, and I’ll see you next week!