During a football game, players are supposed to only think about what’s happening on the field. The coach is the person responsible for what happens before and after the ball is hiked. Among other things, coaches are responsible for talking with referees, managing the clock, scouting, and strategizing how to play their final few games. It should not be surprising, then, that the training of players and manager are very different. Specifically, there are articles that guide players and a very different set of articles that guide coaches.
Magic players, like players in other sports, have access to articles that focus on what to play and/or how to play it. For example, there are discussions about constructing every deck from Elves (I have to talk about Elves in every article I write) to White Weenie to Five Color Control. Players can read about draft tactics like Blue White Fliers, Mono Red Aggro, and Green Ramp. And there are articles that explain play strategies including chump blocking, playing with counters, or playing around Blightning. These sources of advice are all hugely important, and have all improved the quality of players from Friday Night Magic to Pro Tours.
However, in Magic, players aren’t just players; they are also their own coaches. Unlike most sports, there are virtually no discussions of the issues that a coach should worry about. This article addresses those omissions by discussing concerns that are hugely important but that don’t directly affect the play of the hand:
1) when to call over referees and how to talk with them
2) how to prevent the clock from being an enemy
3) when and how to scout the field
4) using the standings to decide when to intentionally draw
Knowing how to be an expert (self-)coach can really improve your results and get you to the next level.
Dealing with the men in black and white is a major part of a coach’s job. Coaches who yell at referees often gain a bad reputation and end up getting more rulings against them. However, when coaches argue their points in a calm and collected manner, they are much more persuasive. Magic has its own zebras: judges. While judges may sometimes seem to make the rules of Magic bizarre and frustrating, there are things you can do to prevent yourself from being the victim of a bad ruling.
The most obvious way to prevent a bad ruling is to appeal. Floor judges are not going to hold the fact that you appealed their ruling against you, and no one has lost a friendship because of an appealed ruling. Floor judges are mainly on the floor to get experience and learn how to handle tough rulings and difficult situations. However, their learning opportunity should not cost you, which is why we have an appeal system. Judges understand that appealing is part of the process and if you don’t agree with their ruling, they would certainly much rather you appeal than hold it against them or not trust them with rulings in the future.
If you EVER think you are getting the short end of the stick on a floor judge’s ruling, you should immediately appeal. If you don’t, you have no right to complain about a bad ruling: you didn’t do everything in your power to prevent it. It would be like complaining about losing to a sick top-deck when you gave your opponent an extra turn to draw their out by not attacking for lethal.
The other day I heard a story about how someone got an unfortunate ruling from a judge that cost them a game. The player had thrown Paralyzing Grasp in the direction of a big tapped creature, but accidentally missed and the enchantment landed on the neighboring untapped, smaller, creature. He tried as hard as he could to make it clear that his intent was to target the bigger creature, but the floor judge was having none of it. I then asked the person telling the story what happened when he appealed. The response? “I didn’t appeal.” This story was not about some scrub PTQing for the first time, but about a professional at a Grand Prix with money on the line. People don’t appeal enough even at the highest level.
Of course, you can’t appeal if you didn’t call a judge in the first place. There are a number of cases when you should call a judge. First, always call a judge when there is a dispute on life totals. Trying to work it out yourself is not the solution: having a neutral party there to go through the motions with you and your opponent can make life a ton easier.
For example, at a 5K, two players were having a life dispute. They argued for a little bit. One player then gave in because they were arguing about only one life and it was unlikely to matter. At the end of the match, the player who gave in lost to exact damage. After the game, the player then went through what had happened in the game with his opponent. They eventually realized the mistake his opponent had made on his life pad. At this point, there was nothing they could do. A judge could have easily sorted this out just by calming the players down, listening to each side of the story, and talking through exactly what happened, but the players had too much pride to call a judge.
Another case when it is very important to call a judge is when you don’t know a rule that the other player does or vice versa. If you don’t call a judge in either case, you are making a mistake. It is obvious that trusting your opponent about the rules is a mistake because your opponent’s goal is to beat you: they may be lying in order to win or may simply be wrong even though they are confident. However, if you are confident about a rule that your opponent doesn’t know, it’s equally important call over a judge even if your opponent claims to trust you. You should not have to explain the rules to your opponent when judges are hired to do this. Even worse, if your opponent lets it slide within the match, he still may be skeptical and hold it against you in the future: Calling a judge protects your reputation.
A third circumstance that necessitates calling a judge is when your opponent does something that deserves a warning, such as looking at extra cards. People often feel bad about getting their opponent a warning, so they let inappropriate behaviors slide. However, it is important that you call a judge. First, the person may be doing this intentionally: calling a judge each time this happens will help demonstrate a pattern of behavior. If it is late in the tournament, the fact that a judge has been called on the player multiple times can help catch cheaters. Second, if you try to fix the problem yourself, you can often be liable for punishment if the fix you perform is not permissible. There are rules about breaking the rules, and if a judge sees you violating those meta-rules, it may be you receiving a warning or even worse. It can often be awkward to call a judge for a warning, but it is worse when it costs you or prevents a cheater from being caught.
The fear of appealing or even calling a judge in the first place is a completely irrational one. Judges are usually kind, nice people and are there for a reason. Ironically, the number one reason for not calling a judge is to save time, but a judge usually saves time because arguing with your opponent takes much longer than a mediated conversation with a judge. When judges do take a while to make sure they get the ruling right, they are happy to give time extensions (although people are often afraid of asking for these, too). Simply being willing to call judges at tournaments can prevent tons of awkward situations, bad beats, and unnecessary draws on time.
Once you have called a judge, the way you present your case can make all the difference. The most important thing to realize is that the judge wasn’t there to see what happened in your game. The first thing to do is try to put yourself in the judge’s shoes and figure out what information would help you make a decision if you hadn’t been there. If you and your opponent each immediately shout your side of the story, the judge will usually not understand what either player is saying and no progress will be made. However, if you give your opponent a chance to talk and then explain the story in an unbiased and detailed way, the judge will be able to make a ruling at a reasonable pace and will be more inclined to believe you when it comes time to pick sides.
Details are really effective when you’re trying to explain what happened. The more information you give the judge to work with, the easier it can be for your judge to process. Even small things like when your opponent said “o.k.” or how long it took between each event can make a big difference in a ruling. Of course, don’t present irrelevant details: focus on the key issues.
The most important thing to avoid is to talk about “what makes sense.” The judge is not allowed to make a ruling based on how clear one choice would be relative to another. For example, it might be “obvious” that you would destroy an opponent’s 10/10 rather than a 1/1, but the judge cannot take that into account. The judge can ONLY consider the rules and what happened. If you talk about how you were not sure about letting his Wrath resolve because you had a Baneslayer in play and Baneslayer is awesome, the judge will ignore you. If you say you took a long time because you wanted to play around Daze, the judge will not care. Just tell the judge what happened and let him make his ruling. And if you don’t agree with the ruling, appeal.
Clock and Time Management
In many sports, a draw is halfway between a win and a loss. However, in Magic, draws are much closer to losses than wins. Thus, you should do everything in your power to avoid drawing (as long as it doesn’t cost a loss). Because almost all draws come about because of time, you must be even more aware of the clock than the typical coach.
If you look at most of the top pros, they rarely draw because most draws are avoidable. The key is to know how to keep the clock on your side. Actually “¦ it is best to keep the clock in front of you so that you always know where you are on time. How much time is left in a match can affect your pace of play and even your strategy. Obviously, if you are not facing the clock, you can look back to see it, but you are forced to turn away from the field of play and it is easy to forget. Thus, whenever possible, take the seat that has a clear view of the clock.
The next thing to note is that you should worry about the clock even if it is early in the round. In the last tournament I played, there was no clock in the room, and the speaker system was not very loud. My opponent and I did not realize the round had started until 5 minutes in. Instead of asking for a time extension, we simply assumed that time wouldn’t matter. We ended up drawing when I was one turn away from winning. I had no excuse for not winning the game because I didn’t ask for a time extension when we missed the first five minutes. At the end of the round, I told the judge about the problem and he said sorry and that he would try to fix the problem in the future: shockingly (not), he did not award me two points.
The other time to ask for a time extension is after a ruling by a judge. Judges tend to give time extensions after long rulings, but they sometimes forget. As I said in the last section, there is no reason a judge’s error should cost you a game. If the judge did not give you a time extension, always ask, even if the round has just started.
There is another aspect of time management: pace of play. Many people think that they can only control their own pace of play. If their opponent is playing slow, they play even faster to ensure that they complete their games within the allotted time. This often leads to many play errors and sloppy play and can often cost you the game: avoiding a draw by losing through sloppy play is not a sensible approach.
If your opponent is playing too slowly, you can do something about it: tell him to please play faster, and if the problem persists, call a judge to watch for slow play. I often don’t do this because it feels like a jerky thing to do and takes up a significant portion of a judge’s time, but it is definitely worth it. Don’t wait until there are just a few minutes left to address slow play: If a player is playing too slowly, don’t wait until the end of the match to address the problem. This is the key to clock management. If you freak out and try to address slow play with five minutes left and game three barely started, it is almost guaranteed you will either lose from sloppy play or end up drawing. However, if you are consistent throughout the round and play at a reasonable pace and keep your opponent going at a reasonable pace, there is no reason you should draw a match barring the occasional three-game control mirror.
In sports, scouting is a key part of strategy. Coaches spend a significant portion of their time analyzing the strategies of their future opponent; coaches who scout well can get a significant strategy edge on their opponent. Magic does not allow for the same amount of scouting because you do not know who you are playing against until minutes before you have to play. However, scouting can still be an important skill.
Scouting does two things for you. First, it affects your mulligan decisions for game one. There are certain hands that are only good against certain decks, and you can keep or mulligan those based on what your opponent is playing. Second, if you know specific unconventional choices in your opponent’s deck, you can play around them.
It is impossible to scout a whole tournament field, but if you have a perfect record, it isn’t too hard to scout the other people with perfect records. After round four or five at a PTQ, you should make a list of the remaining X-Os and write down what they are playing. If you are playing a slow deck and are concerned about finishing after the other top tables, use your friends. Just make sure to befriend some scrubs, and when they 0-2 drop, recruit them for scouting. For example, wrapter’s friendship with LSV finally paid off after LSV 0-3 dropped GP Houston! Or you could just make lots of friends: even good players will have a bad day now and then. Hopefully, if you take my advice in the other parts of this article, you will be the one recruiting your friends to scout more often than they will be recruiting you.
Pre-Elimination Rounds Strategy
There has been a lot of discussion about the strategy the Colts and Saints used at the end of last football season. Both teams clinched a playoff berth with a couple games left to play in the regular season.
Sportscasters around the world debated on whether it was appropriate for the teams to rest their players. They did, and in the end, the two dominating teams met in the Super Bowl, validating their strategy. How teams handle the end of the year can decide their playoff fortunes, and even dictate whether or not they make the playoffs.
Magic’s late round strategy can be just as important. Just as football players like to rest before the playoffs, Magic players often like to use intentional draws as a chance to rest before the elimination rounds. Knowing when it is safe to draw can be an incredible tool, but when it is not safe to draw, it can be the most frustrating way to miss Top 8. For example, you’re X-1 in a PTQ heading into the last round. You’re in fourth. You’re sure that it’s impossible to drop more than four spaces after drawing, so you feel totally safe. You shake your opponent’s hand for the intentional draw and get mentally prepared for Top 8. After the last round, you hear a few names called but you know you’ll probably be towards the bottom half. You hear a few more. They’ve called seven, but you just know you’re eighth. They call the name, but it’s not yours. You walk up to the final standings to find out what went wrong. And then you see your name, printed next to the dreaded number nine. You just handed away your invite to the Pro Tour, and it wasn’t even by punting a game.
The key to calculating intentional draws is to understand how many people from each table in the pairings can reach the point level you would have after drawing, and how many of those will have better tiebreakers than you. It is quite hard to explain without having an example, and I see no reason not to take it from a tournament near and dear to my heart: GP Oakland
Sitting at Table One were Adam Yurchick and Travis Woo. Yurchick had 39 points. Even if every 36 pointer won (which would be impossible the way the pairings were structured), Yurchick would still make Top 8 since there were only 7 people who could reach 39 points. Travis Woo was at 36 points. A draw would bring him to 37 points with about 72% tiebreakers (breakers do fluctuate a little, but not very much in the late rounds). Looking at it table by table, there is one person at Table One that would be ahead of Travis assuming he drew (Yurchick). At Table Two, both Conley Woods (36 pts.) and me (39 pts. and guaranteed into Top 8; I might want to resign to Conley) would be ahead of Travis if Conley won (or I scooped to him). At Table Three, the winner would be ahead of Travis (if they drew, then they could in theory both be ahead if their breakers both increased a lot). At Table Four, Patrick Cox (36 pts.) would clearly be ahead of Travis if he won. At Table Five and after, no one could pass Travis without a huge increase in tiebreakers, which is essentially impossible. Thus, there were a maximum of six people who could reasonably end up ahead of Travis (Yurchick, me, Woods, Parish, Brozek, and Cox)): Travis should draw with Yurchick.
At Table Two, I was paired against Conley Woods. I was in the same position as Yurchick, and Conley was in a similar position to Travis, but with weaker tiebreakers. I scooped to Conley since he was slightly concerned about missing on breakers and it didn’t matter to me. However, we can look at whether or not Conley could have drawn if he wasn’t lucky enough to be paired against someone so awesome. Conley was in the same position as Travis for the first four tables; there were six potential passers. However, if Francis Toussaint (34 pts.) were to win at Table 5, Conley would be in jeopardy of being passed by a seventh man. If Toussaint’s breakers increased, Connely would be positioned in the eighth slot because Toussaint’s would be at 37 points as well. Of course, the top eight make it so it turns out Conley didn’t really need that concession.
At Table Three, Joby Parrish (36 pts.; my only real loss in the tournament) and Petr Brozek (36 pts.) were paired. Could Parrish and Brozek draw? Parrish and Brozek could only be passed by the four people at Tables One and Two, their opponent this round, the winner of Cox vs. Kelly, and Francis Toussaint if some weird tiebreaker changes happen. Thus, they were both guaranteed at least 8th as well. They realized this and drew into top eight at the Grand Prix.
At Table Four, Patrick Cox (36 pts.) was playing John Paul Kelly (34 pts.). Cox could draw into Top 8, but Kelly couldn’t, meaning they had to battle it out. This is something to be careful of at tournaments. Sometimes, you check standings and see that you can draw in and assume you’re in Top 8, but end up getting paired down against someone who can’t draw. It is important to keep a level head when this happens and always be ready to battle. Cox did just that and took down the match to make Top 8 (Kelly did not).
At Table Five, Francis Toussaint (34 pts.) was playing Tomohoro Saito (33 pts.). If Toussaint won, the Top 8 would be cut and dry with all the 37 pointers and above making top 8. However, if Saito won, then a slew of 36 pointers would be breaker-battling it out for the 8th and final slot. As it turned out, Saito won and beat out Cedric Phillips (ending at 36 pts.) by a hair, sneaking his way into Top 8.
The GP Oakland tiebreaker math turned out to be on the simple side. However, a small change could spice things up. If Cedric Phillips were at 34 points instead of 33 (but the pairings and tiebreakers stayed the same), the math would be completely different. This would mean a ninth player from Table 6 would have a legitimate shot at reaching 37 points. Because of that, anyone who drew into 37 points would be at risk to get breaker jumped and miss Top 8.
Many people are unwilling to draw if they are in this position. However, this stance is wrong. For someone at 37 points and 70% breakers (Joby Parrish/Petr Brozek) to miss Top 8, both Phillips and Toussaint would have to win and Toussaint’s tiebreakers would have to increase about 5%. Even if you think you are at 70% to win your match (an extremely high percentage when playing for Top 8), that is a worse percentage than simply drawing (the odds of either one or both games going the right way is already 75% and the needed jump in the tie-breakers make the odds of success with drawing even better). If you say to yourself that you “want to control your own destiny,” you should realize you are doing this for psychological reasons, not practical ones. Frankly, it is not worth keeping things in your control if it decreases your chances of success.
The key to tiebreaker math is looking at it on a table by table basis. If you look at the standings at the start of Round 15, you will see nine people with 34 points or more. Thus, you might conclude people with 36 points would not be safe drawing because they might lose on tiebreakers. However, when you look on a table by table basis, you see that there is a table where only one of two 34+ pointers can make it to 37 points, leaving everyone at 37 safely in Top 8.
Another important thing to realize is that just because you feel comfortable drawing doesn’t mean your opponent does. Your opponent may not be good at math or may have a reason to battle, such as a friend in contention or the possibility of qualifying on rating. Always be prepared to play and do not assume your opponent will be as gung-ho as you are about drawing.
Magic and sports have a lot of similarities, with some people even considering Magic a sport. In particular, Magic players need a coach as much as players in any other sport. However, you are your own player coach and must realize your job as a coach is just as important as your job as a player. By following these tips, you will become a better coach and be of tremendous value to your player (yourself!).