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A Tournament Where Your Play Doesn’t Cost You a Game

The past few months have been among the most difficult stretches of Magic I’ve ever played. I was two 11-4 or one 12-3 Grand Prix finishes away from hitting Silver level with roughly 8 events to play, but found myself bricking event after event.

A losing streak is hard enough to stomach when you are in the midst of it, but watching those potential Pro Tour invites spiral further and further away was an awful feeling. It felt like I was on the verge of blowing a big opportunity. It wasn’t for lack of hard work or effort either…

I practiced more and harder for each subsequent event, only to continue to come up empty-handed. There were a lot of humdrum 9-6 finishes, a lot of bad Sealed pools, and a lot of Aetherworks Marvel whiffs…

These are not excuses—they are facts. Furthermore, even if they were excuses, I was not satisfied with the results and was committed to working and trying even harder for the next event. Despite the fact that I felt my preparation, effort, and play for each event was approaching the best of my ability, I used each loss as motivation to put more into the tank for the next event.

Here is an important distinction between justifying losses and quantifying culpability: Despite the fact that I could identify lots of instances where forces beyond my control worked against me, there were also examples where there were tangible things I could have done differently to impact games.

I don’t expect my play or anybody else’s play to be perfect. We live in a culture where people love to point out other people’s mistakes and hold it against them while simultaneously pretending they live a mistake-free life. Everything is complicated, and nobody is even close to approaching perfection.

In reality, we live in a world of choices, decisions, and consequences. People use their best judgement to wade through thousands of decisions on a daily basis and hope to do the best they can—a Magic tournament is no different.

I’ve seen great players make costly mistakes. I’ve been shocked to see novice players find excellent lines that I didn’t see. Any given Sunday… if the majority of players had perfect play, the game would be too easy and pointless to play, since the cards would decide the outcome and not the plays.

Here’s an example of a game I played in which, after the match, I described the board state to at least 10 different players and there was no consensus “right or wrong” play.

Game 1, in the dark, you keep the following 6 on the play and scry a land to the bottom playing 4c Stoneblade (opponent kept 7):

You play Strand and pass. Your opponent leads on Mountain and Goblin Guide. What’s the play?

There are a lot of plays here, and how they play out dramatically depends on what cards you draw. I do think that some of the lines give you more opportunities to win the game than others. But all of the lines “can” work and all of the lines “can” fail. The moral of the story is that Magic is hard.

We discussed this hand for literally an hour. I’d love to discuss the hand in the comments.

The line that was ultimately agreed upon as the “best line” after doing multiple calculations was only thought of by 1 of roughly 10 players. Can you consider choosing one viable line from among many a punt? But the better the line the better the chance to win the game. Also, you have maybe a minute to figure it out on the spot during the match, under pressure.

Here’s where I’m going with this little scenario: I like to think about my play and my choices as either gaining me value or costing me value. At the end of the game, did my play make a difference in helping me win or did my decisions potentially cost me the match?

Keep in mind that I don’t believe in perfection. My expectation isn’t that at some point I’ll play perfect Magic and always make the best possible play. I’ve been playing Magic for 20 years and if my play isn’t perfect by now, I’m assuming that it won’t ever be.

A Grand Prix is 15 rounds. Each round has 3 matches, meaning that there are roughly 35-45 games of Magic to be played. You make thousands of decisions in a tournament. Many of those decisions are like the Legacy hand I described where the line is so complicated and with so many intangibles that it’s difficult to know which one is the best in the moment.

At some point, you will cast a Brainstorm, go from there, and things will become more clear.

Here is one of the biggest areas I’ve worked on cleaning up in my game. I like to add little sub-games to my tournament experience. A long time ago I wrote an article about trying to play an entire tournament without feeling tilted by bad luck, etc. Now that has become automatic for me. I don’t get sad or angry when I lose and I move on to the next round and keep fighting as hard as I can.

My new objective is to try and play an entire tournament where my play doesn’t cost me a match.

The worst losses are the ones where you make a mistake that was within the capability of your knowledge to prevent. There is a big difference between not finding the statistically best play on a complicated board and making a mistake that could have been prevented.

For the past few months I’ve been trying to play an entire tournament without making a mistake that I could have prevented. I have not accomplished this feat yet.

Magic requires so much focus for such an extended period of time. It’s obvious once the mistake has happened, but being in a mental state where you catch every single hazard before it happens is a challenge. It is what separates the best players from the rest of the pack. I’m convinced that prolonged success has more to do with simply not costing yourself games than having the ability to always detect the best possible line of play.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t strive to find the best lines of play or that you shouldn’t work hard to acquire the skills required to find difficult lines. But rather than focusing on the bad luck or bad Sealed pool, more energy should be put into trying to correct the mistakes that cost you games.

You can’t control what Sealed pool you open. You can’t control how often your Marvel hits. You can’t control what card your opponent topdecks. All of these things will correlate to whether or not you win or lose games of Magic. No doubt. But they are beyond your control, and so  focusing on them is not particularly useful in terms of improving and winning more in the future.

The most dangerous play that I’ve tried to eliminate from my game lately is: “Well, if they have nothing, this play is good…” The thinking behind this line is often that if you don’t attack or play into a counterspell that you are giving up equity. If they have nothing and you choose to do nothing, then you are letting your opponent off the hook.

I’ve been trying to think more about how much I’m giving up to be patient versus how much I’m giving up to play into an opponent’s spells.

I can’t even tell you how many times I didn’t attack into my opponent’s open 1W on turn 2 (Impeccable Timing) with my R/W and G/W Sealed decks and how many games that decision won me in the long run compared to what it cost me to be patient.

Always finding the best possible line is a skill that requires ability, format knowledge, and expertise to even come close to mastering. I approach every match with the hope that I’ll bring my best effort and attempt to find the best lines of play turn after turn. But I’ve placed a newfound emphasis on trying to curtail plays that cost me games, and it has made a big difference.

Cleaning up sloppy mechanical mistakes is a big one. Really thinking hard about whether or not to mulligan close hands is another. The last one is not doing anything automatically. If it seems automatic, take a quick second to think about the cost of the play first before you make it. Think about whether or not the play you are making is good—are you making it because it’s easy or does it actually gives you the best chance to win the game?

The moral of the story and the biggest thing I’ve been working on is to eliminate plays from my tournaments where I look back and ask: “Why did I do that? I know better than that.” Within those margins is a big space for improvement. If you make one or two fewer of those types of mistakes over the course of an event, it could be the difference between Day 2 and Day 1, or not cashing and Top 8.

Magic is hard. The margins are slim. Put yourself in the position to win by eliminating plays that cost you games before they happen.

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